Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Music Morsels Volume VI: For the Stars, Anne Sofie Van Otter Meets Elvis Costello

This is one of my favorite albums. An odd little duck, it's the result of Elvis Costello's being a fan of opera singer Anne Sofie Van Otter. Costello approached Van Otter about working together, and the two decided to do a pop album of covers, of songs that Costello thought Van Otter should know and would want to sing. The recipe sounds potentially ugly, and of course classical sections of music stores are littered with ill-fated attempts by classical singers to "cross-over" to more popular styles. But here, the chemistry was perfect.

Unlike many an opera singer trying to go "pop," Van Otter has a real feel for the idiom of pop singing. True, a lot of these songs sound more jazz than pop, but whatever classification you lean to, she is able to abandon the intense, full operatic sound, for a mellower, softer tone that only benefits from the perfect intonation and dictions she brings from the opera world. She really gets into the lurics too, finding the melancholy and wistfullness that feature heavily in a lot of Costello's selections. What really make sthe album, actually, is that Costello found some real gems for her to sing. In addition to doing a few of his own songs, and a few he wrote just for this disc, Costello dug up some old Tom Waits, Lennon and McCartney, and ABBA songs for Van Otter, and his taste is impeccable. Highlights include the ABBA piece, above all others--a forgotten and unknown-by-me song called "Like an Angel Passing through My Room" that ABBA-member and composer Benny Andersson plays piano on. Haunting and gorgeous. Other highlights include a Lennon and McCartney number, "For No One," and one of Costello's originals, the opener No Wonder."


Until Whenever

Only Acts of Genocide

Saw Hotel Rwanda a month or so ago and loved it. Don Cheadle was great, and the movie did an excellent job of portraying what happened without ever getting overly preachy or sentimental--but instead by being clear-eyed and honest. I didn't know, well, pretty much anything about the whole Rwanda conflict before seeing the movie, and so came out of it very much wanting to learn more. A little digging led me to a remarkable book: Philip Gourevitch's We Wish To Inform You that Tomorrow We Will be Killed with Our Families.

The book is a comprehensive, extremely wel-written, and engaging summary of the history that led to the conflict, the genocide itself, and the aftermath, told as often as is possible through the stories of Rwandans Gourevitch interviewed. The story is a stunning one, and it's hard to come away from reading it without being affected in some way. Gourevitch tells anecdotes about priests leading bands of killers to refugees hiding in their churches; stories of murders upon murders committed with machetes, of the slaughter of children, that make one blanch. But he also tells stories like the one that inspired the film, of ordinary Rwandans acting with simple courage and conviction. And he spends a fair amount of time discussing the lack of a response from the Western world, in particular the United States. For anyone looking for a clear and comprehenisive overview of the history, without wanting a simple, sterile encyclopedia-like summary, this is the book. Highly recommended.

Until Whenever

Monday, August 29, 2005

When I Was Younger . . .

Thanks to Lefty for pointing me towards this toe-touching stretching exercise of back-to-blogging memeing. I'm modifying the rules as he laid them out because, well, I want to.

Listed below are the top 100 songs from the year I graduated high school, 1992. I'm bolding the songs I actively like, underlining the ones I actively dislike, and leaving alone the ones I don't know or have no feelings towards one way or the other. Random comments on selected songs.

Top 100 Hits of 1992 / Top 100 Songs of 1992

1. End Of The Road, Boyz II Men
2. Baby Got Back, Sir Mix A-lot
What can I say? It's catchy.

3. Jump, Kris Kross
4. Save The Best For Last, Vanessa Williams
5. Baby-Baby -Baby, TLC
6. Tears In Heaven, Eric Clapton
7. My Lovin' (You're Never Gonna Get It), En Vogue
8. Under The Bridge, Red Hot Chili Peppers
Overplayed, but not the song's fault.

9. All 4 Love, Color Me Badd
10. Just Another Day, Jon Secada
11. I Love Your Smile, Shanice
12. To Be With You, Mr. Big
13. I'm Too Sexy, Right Said Fred
14. Black Or White, Michael Jackson
Could a song be more simple-minded?

15. Achy Breaky Heart, Billy Ray Cyrus
16. I'll Be There, Mariah Carey
17. November Rain, Guns N' Roses
18. Life Is A Highway, Tom Cochrane
Why come up with a creative meataphor?

19. Remember The Time, Michael Jackson
20. Finally, CeCe Peniston
21. This Used To Be My Playground, Madonna
22. Sometimes Love Just Ain't Enough, Patty Smyth
23. Can't Let Go, Mariah Carey
24. Jump Around, House Of Pain
25. Diamonds and Pearls, Prince and The N.P.G.
26. Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me, George Michael and Elton John
27. Masterpiece, Atlantic Starr
28. If You Asked Me To, Celine Dion
29. Giving Him Something He Can Feel, En Vogue
30. Live and Learn, Joe Public
31. Come and Talk To Me, Jodeci
32. Smells Like Teen Spirit, Nirvana
I don't think it's the end-all, be-all it's oft-made out to be, but it don't suck.

33. Humpin' Around, Bobby Brown
34. Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover, Sophie B. Hawkins
35. Tell Me What You Want Me To Do, Teven Campbell
36. Ain't 2 Proud 2 Beg, TLC
37. It's So Hard To Say Goodbye To Yesterday, Boyz II Men
38. Move This, Technotronic
39. Bohemian Rhapsody, Queen
Well, sure.

40. Tennessee, Arrested Development
41. The Best Things In Life Are Free, Luther Vandross and Janet Jackson
42. Make It Happen, Mariah Carey
43. The One, Elton John
44. Set Adrift On Memory Bliss, P.M. Dawn
45. Stay, Shakespear's Sister
46. 2 Legit 2 Quit, Hammer
Wherein "Lord" and "Hard" pretend to rhyme.

47. Please Don't Go, K.W.S.
48. Breakin' My Heart (Pretty Brown Eyes), Mint Condition
49. Wishing On A Star, Cover Girls
50. She's Playing Hard To Get, Hi-Five
51. I'd Die Without You, P.M. Dawn
52. Good For Me, Amy Grant
53. All I Want, Toad The Wet Sprocket
54. When A Man Loves A Woman, Michael Bolton
55. I Can't Dance, Genesis
56. Hazard, Richard Marx
57. Mysterious Ways, U2
Hell to the yes.

58. Too Funky, George Michael
59. How Do You Talk To An Angel, Heights
60. One, U2
My fifth-favorite U2 song ever
61. Keep On Walkin', CeCe Peniston
62. Hold On My Heart, Genesis
63. The Way I Feel About You, Karyn White
64. Beauty and The Beast, Celine Dion and Peabo Bryson
Textbook example of a great song being slaughtered by a horrid rendition.

65. Warm It Up, Kris Kross
66. In The Closet, Michael Jackson
67. People Everyday, Arrested Development
68. No Son Of Mine, Genesis
69. Wildside, Marky Mark and The Funky Bunch
70. Do I Have To Say The Words?, Bryan Adams
71. Friday I'm In Love, Cure
72. Everything About You, Ugly Kid Joe
73. Blowing Kisses In The Wind, Paula Abdul
74. Thought I'd Died and Gone To Heaven, Bryan Adams
75. Rhythm Is A Dancer, Snap
76. Addams Groove, Hammer
77. Missing You Now, Michael Bolton
78. Back To The Hotel, N2Deep
79. Everything Changes, Kathy Troccoli
80. Have You Ever Needed Somone So Bad, Def Leppard
81. Take This Heart, Richard Marx
82. When I Look Into Your Eyes, Firehouse
83. I Wanna Love You, Jade
84. Uhh Ahh, Boyz II Men
85. Real Love, Mary J. Blige
86. Justified and Ancient, The KLF
87. Slow Motion, Color Me Badd
88. What About Your Friends, TLC
89. Thinkin' Back, Color Me Badd
90. Would I Lie To You?, Charles and Eddie
91. That's What Love Is For, Amy Grant
92. Keep Coming Back, Richard Marx
93. Free Your Mind, En Vogue
94. Keep It Comin', Keith Sweat
95. Just Take My Heart, Mr. Big
96. I Will Remember You, Amy Grant
97. We Got A Love Thang, CeCe Peniston
98. Let's Get Rocked, Def Leppard
99. They Want EFX, Das EFX
100. I Can't Make You Love Me, Bonnie Raitt

I'm amazed at how many of these I don't know.

Until Whenever

Friday, August 19, 2005

It'll Be All Right . . .

Tosy and Cosh will be away on holiday for a week or so, so expect no further dispatches from these shores for a little while. Sun, sand, and surf await.

Until Whenever
Doin' the Friday Shuffle


1. "I Don't Hear the Ocean" - Michael John LaChiusa - Marie Christine (Original Broadway Cast)
Stirring romantic song from this beautiful score, a retelling of Medea in New Orleans, as the husband parallel seduces the Medea character after they've first met.

2. "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" - U2 - Rattle & Hum
This is a stunning live version of the song, with the gospel group The New Voices of Freedom singing along with the band in an artfully done arrangement that gives the gospel singers full rain and brings out the real gospel nature of the song in a completely organic way.

3. "(Pal Joey Suite) Happy Hunting Horn" - Mandy Patinkin - Dress Casual
Patinkin does a nicely condensed run through of the whole score in this medley.

4. "Beaten to the Punch" - Elvis Costello - Get Happy!!
Elvis channels his look-alike, Buddy Holly, in this peppy rock number.

5. "The Kiss" - Philip Glass - The Hours (Soundtrack)
One of my favorite scores. This track is an uneasy, pensive bit of melancholy driven by soft piano.

6. "Heebie Jeebies" - Louis Armstrong - The Essential Louis Armstrong
Very early Louis in an old, scratchy recording. The voice isn't as deep as it'll get, but the gravel is there and well-formed.

7. "Magic Bus" - The Who - Live at Leeds
Long version of the classic song, from what's of considered one of the greatest live albums ever produced.

8. "Sunrise Letter" - Stephen Sondheim - Passion
Marin Mazzie singing to her distant lover, and already sensing she's about to lose him. Gorgeous piece of music.

9. "Dissolve" - Elvis Costello - When I Was Cruel
One of Elvis' harder rockers, all feedback and fuzz, with some funky horn work on top.

10. "New Life (Reprise)" - Pete Townsend - The Iron Man
One of Townsend's post-Who attempts at musical theater-style concept albums. This is a little treacly; you can almost see the Disney cartoon in your head.

Until Whenever

Thursday, August 18, 2005

The Sundry RockStar

Augie has a good post about what American Idol could learn from RockStar over at Various and Sundry.

Until Whenever
A Little Too Likely to be Funny

Hilarious, but oddly possible.

Until Whenever

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

RockStar Week Six

Because no one demanded it. This week the singers go unplugged (but in some cases overproduced; I think they kind of missed the point of being inspired by Marty's acoustic-guitar-only performance last week). Here are my pithy takes:

Jordis - Knocking on Heaven's Door (Bob Dylan)
Good Lord this woman can sing. Overproduced and too many strings and a bit schmaltzy, but she still was wonderful. I resisted throughout, having wanted a very stripped-down version with just guitar and voice, but she won me over in the end. I'd love to hear her tackle a non-over-covered Dylan song. "Tangled Up in Blue?"

Jessica - Torn (Natalie Imbruglia)
Better that she's been, but still not special. She may cling around for a week more or two, but I'd be shocked if she wins.

Ty - Maggie May (Rod Stewart)
Great rethinking of a song I've never really cared for. The finals should really be between Jordis and Ty.

Suzie - Bring It on Home to Me (Sam Cooke)
Great, soulful performance of a song I didn't know.

Marty - Hit Me Baby (One More Time) (Britney Spears)-- Marty
Marty takes the curveball and does well with it, but you have to wonder; wasn't he in a win-win situation? I mean, if he blew it, wouldn't the song have been blamed? He certainly got a lot of credit for managing to do it well.

Deanna - I Can't Make You Love Me (Bonnie Raitt)
Admirably sung, but, again, not special. At this point, only special will really cut it.

J.D. - As Tears Go By (The Rolling Stones)
When will America vote this arrogant SOB off? He thinks he's being soulful, and intent, and mysterious, but really he's just being egotistically dramatic with his "intense" version. Blech.

MiG - Baby, I Love Your Way (Peter Frampton)
Very intense, soulful rendition of a could-easily be-cheesy song, with MiG accompanying himself on piano very ably.

Deanna, Suzie, and J.D. should be on the block but who knows what America will do.

Until Whenever

The U2 Canon--Boy
U2 is, without question or pause, my favorite band. They are the only band I've seen live multiple times, and one of only a handful of artists whose new albums I religiously will purchase on the for sale date. I have posted before about my near-religious belief that Bono is the best rock vocalist, ever, here. I have U2 bootlegs; I have no other bootlegs. I've bought scalped tickets for silly prices to see them; not so for others. So, yes, I'm a big fan. As such, I thought it might be interesting, for me if not for anyone else, to go through the U2 canon, album by album, track by track, and post my thoughts. Shall we begin?

Boy was U2's first album proper. There had been an EP in England that I honestly don't know much about, but for all intents and purposes the U2 catalog starts here. This was an album made by very young men, barely (if at all) out of their twenties, and it shows. The singing and playing is remarkably earnest, truly the work of, well, boys, and yet the four band members were already clearly on to something, with many of what would become the band's signature elements already in place--Bono's impassioned, uninhibited vocals; the Edge's ringing, minimalist guitar figures; Adam's fairly stolid bass support.

I Will Follow--The song that got the most play in later years, it was a staple of the 2000 All that You Can't Leave Behind Tour. The first song on the first album in a lot of ways defines the U2 sound. The song kicks off and is defined by an insistent, repetitive, urgent guitar riff backed by a similarly simple bass line. The bridge slows down considerably for a trance-like dreamy interlude defined by echoey guitar. The song aptly announces the album's whole theme, that of boys turning into men and the trauma encompassed within that transition, and was partly, at least, about Bono dealing with loss of his mother as a teenager.

Twilight--Moody mid-tempo number after the more straight-ahead rock of "I Will Follow." Bono's voice already exhibits that open, belty quality, but is much more stylized and affected early on. "Under shadow, boy meets man." One line to sum up the album's theme; a trick U2 would revisit on later albums.

An Cat Dubh--Gaellic for "The Black Cat" this song is driven by a great, if remarkably simple, bass line. In Bono's grunting and the keening noises added to the mix, you can hear a young band playing in the studio. The band pulled this out of decades-old mothballs on their still-going Vertigo tour. segues directly into:

Into the Heart--An early earnest U2 experiment. Almost an instrumental, the Edge attempting a lyrical guitar melody over an heartbeat of a bass line. Pretty, but slight, with lyrics that border on the mawkish.

Out of Control--An early classic, more straight-ahead rock, with a nicely propelled feeling mirroring the lyrics about the headlong chaos that adolescence can feel like.

Stories for Boys--Twisty, very un-Adam-like bass line anchoring another uptempo song. The open-ended guitar figures give the song an almost-sinister sound. The first instance of what would be many ably handled Edge backup vocals.

The Ocean--An attempt at a mood piece. A Brian Eno piece before the band met him. Bono attempts some beat-like poetry, almost spoken over the atmospheric bass and guitar. Hasn't aged well.

A Day Without Me--Classic adolescent angst. "You'll miss me if I die!" The lyric "starting a landslide in my ego" just screams teenager.

Another Time, Another Place--One of the album's more sophisticated tracks, the guitar and bass working very well together to establish a menacing mood. This track has more than stood the test of time--they could have resurrected this on tour to great effect.

Electric Co.--The other song they've been doing on tour as an homage to their very early club years. A great song, insistent and hard, almost punk-like, one of the band's better rock tracks.

Shadows and Tall Trees--An overly overt stab at being poetic--"I walk street rain tragicomedy" "Life through a window/A discolored pane/Mrs. Brown's washing/Is always the same." Still, the chorus does hint at how U2 would in the future be able to handle the kinds of grand musical statements they attempt here with limited success.

Boy is by no means the most accomplished debut album, but it is surprisingly well-formed for such a young band, and very indicative of where they would go and showing teasing hints of topics and sounds that would obsess the band for years to come.

Until Whenever
Music Morsels Volume V - Experiment

Mandy Patinkin, one of my favorite actors and singers, comes into a fair bit of criticism for a vocal approach that can often be called, charitably, wildly over the top. He possesses a big, strong voice that he can wield with pinpoint accuracy while belting to hit the rafters. It's a theatrical style, to be sure, and even this devout fan can admit that it can be, on occasion, a bit much.

Experiment, his third album, seemed designed to explicitly address this very criticism. The entire album is sung softly, crooned with gentle emotion, and not once does Patinkin unleash the roar he has become famous (infamous?) for. In fact, he sings, towards the end of the album, the mighty "Bring Him Home" from Les Miserables, a song designed to show off strong, belted high notes, as a gentle, tender ballad, hushed in solemnity. The album ostensibly tells a story through the song selections, but its charms for me have always lied in how deftly Patinkin switches from an old chestnut like "As Time Goes By" to modern Sondheim fare like "Multitudes of Amys" and make them sound as if they belong together. This, much more than his first two albums, is sonically and programmatically disciplined stuff, with one mood being sustained over the course of the whole album. The last song, the Cole Porter standard "Experiment," is one of those select few I sing to my twin girls on occasion, its message, I think, being remarkably appropriate for children.

Before you leave these portals
To meet our fellow mortals
There's just one final message I would give to you

You all have learned reliance
On the sacred teachings of science
So I hope through life you never will decline
In spite of Philistine defiance
To do what all good scientists do.

Make it your motto day and night.
And it will lead you to the light.
The apple on the top of the tree
Is never to high to achieve
So take an example from Eve

Be curious
Though interfering friends may frown
Get furious
At each attempt to hold you down
If this advice you always employ
The future can offer you infinite joy
And merriment.
And you'll see.

Until Whenever

Monday, August 15, 2005

"I've got/Some-something that you like/You've got . . . "

Jaquandor dittoes the message of a post to a Film Score Monthly thread about how file sharing is not just wrong, but misnamed. Swapping files is stealing, plain and simple, goes the message. Not sharing. Well, yes. And no.

As a teenager I used to go to my local library and take out LPs of music I was interested in. I'd take them home, put the record on the turntable, and copy the music to a tape. I'd then return the LP to the library. As a teenager I'd also make a copy of a CD I liked and give the tape to a friend. I'd tape a song offof the radio so that I could listen to it again and again. Is this different than being able to go online and download an artist's entire catalog? Of course. But the notion that sharing music can be good, and that it's not stealing, is one I find it hard to disabuse myself of. I've never downloaded albums off of the internet without paying for them, aside from a few live bootleg things. But I have ripped CDs that I borrowed from the library so that I could listen to them after I had to return them. I have borrowed CDs from friends and ripped them. Is that stealing? Maybe it is. But I think there are more grays here than Jaquandor, or the poster, is acknowledging.

Until Whenever

Friday, August 12, 2005

Doin' the Friday Shuffle

Play ball!

1. "A Fine Romance" -- Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong -- Ella and Louis Again
The two standards albums Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong did together are paragons of easy-swinging, playful jazz singing. The interplay between the two is a delight as they trade verses and scat around the song.

2. "Ride" -- James Horner -- The Mask of Zorro (Film Score)
Not one of my favorite Horner scores, but some nice percussion here.

3. "10 Minutes Till the Savages Come" -- Manhattan Transfer -- The Offbeat of Avenues
Pretty much the only "smooth jazz" I enjoy. This track is nicely mellow, with trademark Transfer harmonies enlivening the choruses.

4. "The Oxen" -- Benjamin Britten -- A Ceremony of Carols
A moody little carol from Britten's celebrated work. I find that I hardly ever listen to this, most likely because after even a short time I find the children's choir-sound grating.

5. "The Cookie Factory" -- Danny Elfman -- Edward Scissorhands (Film Score)
I think this track may have been recycled many times, it's classic Elfman stuff, a bit of galloping "quirk" with the angelic choir adding effect here and there.

6. "Mothers Talk" -- Tears for Fears -- "Tears Roll Down" The Best of Tears for Fears
Semi-funk from the English duo. This has actually got a nice pulse to it, and Orbanzal always had a good voice. A bit heavy on the synths though.

7. "Casey (Medley): And the Band Played On" -- Mandy Patinkin -- Mandy Patinkin
Mandy does three songs in this medley: "And the Band Played On," "Marie," and "Once upon a Time." It's a very well-done medley, tenderly sung.

8. "I Allegro Ma Non Troppo" -- Beethoven -- Symphony #6 ("Pastoral")
The opening movement of the Pastoral symphony; you can hear nature waking up all over the countryside.

9. "War Dance" -- XTC -- Nonsuch
Is it just me or is the clarinet figure here very strongly reminiscent of the clarinet line in the Law & Order theme?

10. "Look at the Sky" -- Mark Hollman -- Urinetown (Original Broadway Cast)
Hilarious parody of an "inspirational" Broadway number.

Until Whenever

Thursday, August 11, 2005

RockStar Week Five

No, I will not miss Brandon.

Didn't actually see the elimination show, but did see Tuesday's performances. What'd I think?

Suzie - Losing My Religion (REM)
In an attempt to stand out, Suzie rearranged this song (bye-bye mandolin) and made it (what else on this show?) harder and more guitar-driven. Opening it semi-a cappella was an interesting move, but overall she just kind of killed the song's charm with heaviness. The band liked it, but the audience will disagree, putting her in the bottom three.

MiG - All Right Now (Free)
I haven't liked MiG (and I despise holding down the caps lock button for that ridiculous capital 'G'), but he was excellent on this. Clear and strong vocals, and just the right amount of energy, never overwhelming the song.

J.D. - Crazy (Seal)
Is this really a rock song? Either way, J.D. (officially my most hated contestant--he just exudes arrogance, and not that typical loud reality show kind, but the quieter really narcissistic kind) just butchers the song, the harder arrangement kind of obliterating the melody, and the soul that was the original's strength nowhere to be found.

Jessica - Come as You Are (Nirvana)
Jessica (who ended up in the bottom three for this performance--again) keeps slipping by, but she's got to be out soon. She's very bland and her attempt to emote here involves some one-note screaming as opposed to any real emotion.

Jordis - Layla (Eric Clapton)
Her first dud performance, something about how the tune sat in her range just didn't work; it was a very perfunctory performance. She's built up enough headway for this not to hurt her too much though.

Brandon - It's All Over Now (Rolling Stones)
INXS hits the nail on the head when they say the bluesy-rock thing is all Brandon can do. He'll end up in the bottom three again and get kicked off when he drops lyrics to the INXS song in front of INXS. Not a good move, that.

Marty - Mr. Brightside (The Killers)
I didn't know the song, so am not sure how much of a risk it was to do acoustically. Either way, Marty accompanies himself on the guitar admirably and delivers a very good performance, emotional without being overwrought.

Deanna - Long Train Running (Dooby Brothers)
I love me some Doobies. Good rendition and a fine fit for her voice. The band is right, though, to ask her to do something mellower. One member (the oddly mustachioed one) even calls for an all-acoustic show for Week Six. That would be sweet.

Ty - No Woman No Cry (Bob Marley)
Easily the performance of the night. Remarkably soulful and beautifully sung, one of the show's highlights so far.

Until Whenever

Monday, August 08, 2005

Music Morsels IV - Dead Man Walking

I, perhaps somewhat paradoxically, like opera but only have heard a very small number of operas. Here are the sum total of the operas I am at all familiar with (read: operas I own on CD):
Benjamin Britten
A Midsummer Night's Dream
Billy Budd
Peter Grimes
The Turn of the Screw

Jake Heggie
Dead Man Walking


Phillip Glass
La Belle et la Bette

George Gershwin
Porgy & Bess

And the number of operas I've seen is vanishingly small: Peter Grimes at the Met and college productions of Gianni Schicchi and Carmen.

The reason for this shallow pool of knowledge is fairly simple: I find that enjoying an opera (as opposed to, say, enjoying the latest U2 album) requires a fair amount of time, and I rarely devote the time necessary to the focused listening of an opera. Add to that the relative expense of a full opera on CD and, as you can see from the above, I rarely devote myself to opera.

That being said, Dead Man Walking is easily one of my favorite (yes, of the ten or so listed above) operas. I came to the material maybe a decade after it was heavily in the popular consciousness, reading the book, seeing the film, and listening to the opera all within the same year (roughly). My feelings on the death penalty have varied over the years, and I still have a hard time being militant about one view over the other (at the moment I'm against it if only for the impossibility of certitude and the feeling that no other "civilized" nations use of it must mean something), but Sister Helen Prejean's book (and the two major adaptations of it) are just amazing to me in the way they get you to empathize with murderers.

The opera (with a libretto by Terrence McNally, one of my favorite playwrights) does a great job of dramatizing some of this material. The opening, in which we witness central character Joe and his accomplice commit the murder that will be the core of the story, is wrenching stuff, the music creating palpable violence in its aggression. The immediate segue to Sister Prejean's plaintive solo voice singing the Heggie-composed hymn "He Will Gather Us Around" is extremely effective in, right at the outset, dramatizing the poles of the story--the horrific violence Joe has committed versus the Sister's astonishing capacity for the forgiveness of that violence. Heggie, honoring Prejean, does an admirable job of not soft-pedaling Joe, and of creating an unlikeable character whose human qualities are still able to resonate with us. And in the final scene, the execution, Heggie exercised great restraint, overlapping voices and themes to create a sense of drama, but never stooping to the overly sentimental. And I love that, in an opera, Heggie in the end abandons music entirely. By the end of the scene, the only sound we hear is the beep of the heart monitor and the wheeze of the machinery, and, finally, the monotone of the flatline, as Joe is executed; musical sounds by themselves to be sure but hardly the composed sounds one would expect in the finale of an opera.

Grade: A

Until Whenever

Friday, August 05, 2005

'Doin the Friday Shuffle

And a' one, and a' two . . .

1. "Still Crazy After All These Years" -- Amanda McBroom (covering Paul Simon) -- Paul Simon: The Broadway Album
This is a very uneven album of Broadway singers covering Simon songs. This rendition suffers from overstatement; what makes the original work is how understated it is.

2. "Tell It Like It Is" -- Tracy Chapman -- New Beginning
Tracy indulges in a little (very little) funkiness.

3. "Baby Can I Hold You" -- Tracy Chapman -- Tracy Chapman
Beautiful little song with a wonderfully matter-of-fact guitar figure driving it.

4. "Master Song" -- Leonard Cohen -- The Songs of Leonard Cohen
Creepy song, with Cohen's deadpan delivery actually effective at creating a subtly sinsiter mood.

5. "Country Gentleman" -- John Mellencamp -- Big Daddy
An eviscerating political song that rips apart Ronald Reagan (if hardly subtly): "Country Gentleman, now there's a bird thatflew/High above this nation/Preyed on itsweakness/Picked our bones and threw them in his stew/Thank God he went back to California/He ain't a' gonna help no poor man/He ain't a' gonna help no children/He ain't a' gonna help no woman/He's just gonna help his rich friends."

6. "The Stonecutter's Song" -- Alf Klausen -- Songs in the Key of Springfield
"Who holds back the electric car? Who makes Steve Guttenberg a star? We do!"

7. "Distraught" -- Philip Glass - Kundun
Not one of my favorite scores, it nonetheless has some solid Glass stuff within. I really like the guttural chanting on this track.

8. "Hummer" -- Smashing Pumpkins -- Siamese Dream
The intro leaves something to be desired, but this is otherwise a solid rock song.

9. "I Have a Love" -- Leonard Bernstein -- West Side Story (Original Broadway Cast)
Given that it's really the second half of a song ("A Boy Like That") this often gets forgotten when one thinks of the West Side Story tunestack. A pity, since it's one of teh score's most gorgeous moments.

10. "Perdition - Piano Duet" -- Thomas Newman -- Road to Perdition
Pretty piece of diegetic music from the score, with Tom Hanks and Paul Newman playing a simple little piano duet at a party. From what I understand, that's really them, too.

Until Whenever

Thursday, August 04, 2005

I Bet They Don't Even Have Spoons

The cover art of the first season of Scrubs seemed odd to me. I mean, when was the last time a doctor administered medicine on a spoon? A mommy, sure, but not a doctor. And why is the medicine bubbling?

Yes. This is better. That I've seen.
Until Whenever

I had found a host of pop culture blogs, comic blogs, movie blogs, music blogs, artsy blogs, and others to keep me entertained. But no NBA blog. Until now. Hearty recommendation to True Hoop, which I have just begun delving into. Great post here about the problem with Stephon Marbury (Larry Brown will be singing some Rodgers & Hammerstein this year, I've no doubt). True Hoop should also have gotten credit for the Abdur-Rahim news I reacted to so distressingly in a previous post.

Until Whenever

Aghhhhh!!!!! The Sharif Abdur-Rahim trade to the Nets has been put on hold, due to "questions" about his physical. And I was getting so excited . . .

Until Whenever
We May Have Gone Too Far

Via PopWatch, I learn that Entertainment Weekly has listed in the issue on stands tomorrow the "10 Best Cars in Movie History." The winners?

1. The Corvette with fangs from Death Race 2000 (1975)
2. The Trans Am from Smokey and the Bandit (1977)
3. The '56 T-Bird in American Graffiti (1973)
4. The Lotus Esprit in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)
5. The ''family truckster'' station wagon from National Lampoon's Vacation (1983)
6. The Blues Mobile from The Blues Brothers (1980)
7. The time-travelin' DeLorean from Back to the Future (1985)
8. The Mustang GT from Bullitt (1968)
9. The Pussy Wagon from Kill Bill -- Vol 1. (2003)
10. The titular star of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968)

Until Whenever

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

RockStar Week 4

This show's dismal ratings notwithstanding, I'm hooked. It's much more performance-based than I had hoped, and the song selection is eons better than American Idol's. See, I like AI, because I like singing and competitions and it mixes the two together like peanut butter and chocolate getting their freak on. But the pop-heavy song selection mostly leaves me cold--I actually like maybe one out of every five song selections. On RockStar, the ratio's reversed, making for much happier viewing.

So, what did I think of this week's singers? (I refuse to call them "rockers" - it's silly stuff like host Brooke Burke's insistence on using "rocker" 80 times a show that's keeping the ratings so saggy.)

Mig - We Will Rock You (Queen)
Fair rendition of a mostly melody-less song, but not anything special. Mig actually sang the song on London's West End as the lead in the Queen musical We Will Rock You, so I'm surprised he doesn't impress me more with it.

Deanna - I'm the Only One (Melissa Etheridge)
Very good. And the leaving the stage to sing directly to the band move was brilliant. They'll remember it and now no one else can do it without looking ridiculous.

Marty - With Arms Wide Open (Creed)
Marty does a good job with a wretched song, albeit shading his voice to be a little too like the Creed singer's in the original. Still, I love that Dave Navarro implicitly mocked Creed and the song by praising Marty's performance as better than the original.

Ty - Everlong (Foo Fighters)
I don't know this song at all, but Ty seemed to do a fine job with some tricky rhythms. He's a sure finalist, but this week was just good, as opposed to special.

Jessica - Blister in the Sun (Violent Femmes)
Jessica does as good a job as could be expected of this largely melody-less song, but I suspect she'll be bottom-three-bound again.

Brandon - If Only You Could See (Tonic)
Very meh. Brandon just kind of bores me, and I'm (fruitlessly, I'm guessing) hoping he'll be cut soon.

Jordis - The Man Who Sold the World (David Bowie)
Very easily the best performance of the series so far. To my mind, she's in the lead by quite a few lengths--the band clearly loves her (and rightly so).

J.D. - The Letter (Joe Cocker)
Another singer I'm hoping gets kicked soon. This wasn't bad, but he really doesn't have the soulful sound the song demands.

Tara - Message in a Bottle (The Police)
I have strong suspicions that Tara, who just looks old (no idea how old she actually is), will get tossed soon. She's been solid but not special (including here) and I think that added to the age issue will send her packing.

Suzie - Get Back (The Beatles)
Suzie does a very good job of getting out of the song's way and letting it guide her--a good move when dealing with songwriters as accomplished as Lennon and McCartney.

Bottom three? Brandon, J.D., and Mig, but I'd be shocked if they get voted there.

Until Whenever
"I'm Sorry. So Sorry."

Jamie at Something Old notes that in anticipation of a Batman Begins DVD, Warner Bros. is giving the full special edition treatment to the first four films in the franchise, including the universally reviled Batman & Robin. Jamie assumes that Schumacher will, in his commentary track for that film, blithely ignore that universal condemnation I mentioned above and wax rhapsodic about his work. Is Jamie right? Or is there at least a chance that he will acknowledge how terrible the film really is, and discuss honestly what went wrong and why? I don't know if there is, but it would certainly make for one heck of a listen if he did, huh?

Until Whenever

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Buried Beauties Vol. II: Julia Whelan

The late and lamented Once and Again was notable for its stellar youth performances. Since the show's demise, the skinny and blonde (and brilliant) Rachel Evan Wood has gotten film roles galore, while the not-rail-thin (but hardly heavy) and non-blonde (and just as brilliant) Julia Whelan has done a guest spot on the short-lived Dr. Vegas. Fickle Hollywood, we curse you.

Photos seem to be few and far between, but hopefully the below will give you at least a fair idea of Ms. Whelan's very underappreciated beauty. For a taste of her very underappreciated talent, get the first two seasons of Once and Again on DVD at the end of the month.

Until Whenever
The Unlikely Monikered Mr. Jackson

Stealing a good idea from Jaquandor (since that's what blogs are for), I present here my ten favorite action sequences, in (after the first, that is) no particular order:

1. The Truck Chase--Raiders of the Lost Ark
Since seeing this film I've seen longer chase scenes, chase scenes with more stunts, chase scenes that are much faster, and chase scenes with much bigger explosions, but I've never seen a better one. The acting is what really sells this here; throughout the entire sequence Ford (nor his stuntmen) never stops being Indiana Jones, from the way he takes a punch, to the way he throws a punch, to the way he tumbles across the hood of a truck. And the elegant way he snatches victory from the jaws of defeat, by scuttling underneath the truck after being thrown in front of it, is a marvel of economic characterization.

2. The Dangling RV Sequence--The Lost World
I get the sense that there's a lot of ill-will towards this film out there, but I always liked it. Sure, it's a bit less brainy than its predecessor but still; re-watch the original and you'll realize that it's not the brainiest film in the first place. In any case, this tension-fraught sequence, in which our heroes' RV is suspended off of a cliff, is a classic. The bit with Julianne Moore crashing onto the windshield, and then trying to climb up the interior as the glass spiderwebs below her, is Hithcockian in its assured wielding of suspense. And, come on, Toby is the hero, sacrificing himself to save the day.

3. Boromir's Last Stand--The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
The whole sequence is one of my favorites from the trilogy, nicely low-scale and personal, a kind of apertif before the grand-scale battles the next two films will be filled with. Sean Bean does a fine job of portraying Boromir's struggle to make reparations for his attempt to take the ring; this is a prime example of an action sequence that tells us a lot about a character, indeed, that through action shows us the character's growth and the ultimate change he undergoes.

4. The Opening Sequence--Saving Private Ryan
I didn't see this film until a while after its release. Given that my wife was not interested in seeing it, I watched it on DVD one night after she had gone to sleep. We lived at the time in a small ranch, with our bedroom not 10 feet from the TV. So my first exposure to this celebrated sequence was not with Dolby sound in front of a big screen, but on a 19-inch TV with the sound turned very low. And after it, I still felt as if I had been through a battle; it still viscerally moved me even under those less-than-ideal conditions. Remarkable stuff.

5. Anakin vs. Obi-Wan--Star Wars--Episode III: Revenge of the Sith
There have been more visually interesting and acrobatic saber fights in the Star Wars films, but none with the storytelling power of this final one. Williams' score for the fight, the Battle of the Heroes theme, is amazing in its ability to underline the emotions in the fight. Never again, I suspect, will a film fight be able to bring to it so many years of anticipation and tension.

6. Spider-Man vs. The Green Goblin--Spider-Man
The brutality was questionable for a character that for so long has been aimed at eight year-olds, but so right for the film. After a movie's worth of time devoted to Parker getting used to his powers, we see him really unleash in probably the best superhero fight ever put to film.

7. The Battle of Stirling--Braveheart
Braveheart is one of my all-time favorite films, and this battle is a highlight. Gibson has received far too little credit for the closely shot, order-out-of-chaos, "realistic" style he employed here, a style copied in many films since without the clear sense of place that Gibson was able to convey here. That is, throughout the chaos of the battle we always have a clear sense of what's going on, where our key players are, and how the battle is going--not something you can say about subsequent similar cinematic battles.

8. The "Elephant" Sequence--The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Just when we think the stakes can't be raised anymore, they are, with this final sequence from the epic penultimate battle in the third film. The sheer audacity of the invention at hand is what makes this special: witness Legolas' just-this-side-of-believable take-down of one of the gargantuan "elephants" for proof.

9. The Opening Chase--The Matrix
The action in the sequels, especially, but even in this first film, got a little excessive, with too much happening to really take stock of, resulting in nothing but an overload of explosions and punches and crashes and kicks and far too many gunshots. But this first taste of the style the Wachowski's was going for hit the balance perfectly, with fight choreography and filming techniques we hadn't seen before married to a clear narrative--will Trinity escape?

10. Dash's Dash--The Incredibles
Again, great action inexorably married to real character development. The amount of story that's wrapped into this one sequence--Dash and Violet really learning how to exploit their powers, the family coming together to fight as a unit--is remarkable.

Until Whenever

Monday, August 01, 2005

Music Morsels III - C

I first glommed onto the musical Chess when, while in high school, I was searching for an audition song and a friend gave me a tape with "Anthem" on it. I loved the song (and actually did, if memory serves, butcher it nicely during some actual auditions) and soon had searched out the full score. The version I have is the original 1986 London concept album, made with the London Symphony Orchestra. When I first fell in love with this score, the group ABBA meant pretty much nothing to me (I really know very little about their stuff still) except for a vague notion that they were "cheesy." And yet the Chess score (written by ABBA members and songwriters Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus) evidences a great deal of compositional sophistication. No, this is not high-toned classical composing, nor is it even high-toned musical theater composing, but within the "pop opera" idiom of shows like Les Miserables and The Phantom of the Opera this is very well-done music.

There is an instrumental piece, in particular ("Chess"), that's full of wonderful orchestral writing. Tim Rice produces some of the best lyrics of his career, both well-done conversational recicative-type material and some Gilbert and Sullivan-ish patter wordplay. Many will know the radio-friendly minor hit "One Night in Bangkok" but it's actually one of the weaker numbers, and very inessential to the plot. The aforementioned "Anthem" is a gorgeously stately ballad; other highlights include some wonderful duets, chief among them the "Mountain Duet," and a dramatic and well-sung "rock" number featuring some stratosphere-grazing high notes ("Pity the Child"). A few of the ballads can get a little too treacly, even for my tastes, but on the whole this is a worthy "pop opera" score, easily one of the best of that admittedly narrow-casted genre.

Until Whenever