Monday, February 27, 2006

The Books You Remember

From Byzantium's Shores:

A book that made you cry
I'm going to cheat here a little and cite "Higher Education," a Sports Illustrated article by Gary Smith I encountered in the 2001 edition of The Best American Sports Writing. It's a Disney-ready inspirational story of a black coach in the white heart of Amish country who inspires the kids and the town. Had me nearly sobbing openly on the train ride home.

A book that scared you
Stephen King's Gerald's Game, which has the distinction of being, for me, King's scariest book in terms of pure creepiness and psychological horror, as well as his most squirm-inducing in terms of blood and gore. One of the only King books I've only read once--primarily for the latter.

A book that made you laugh
Dave Barry's Big Trouble. Barry can bring the funny, of that there is no doubt.

A book in High School that you loved
Flowers for Algernon. Got the book in 1st-period English Class and finished it that same day on the bench in my basketball shorts and top as the rest of the team warmed up. I haven't read it since; I really should.

A book in High School that you hated
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, AP English senior year. Didn't understand hide nor hair of it.

A book that challenged your imagination
Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep. Hard going, and most definitely screaming out for a re-read. My imagination, truth be told, didn't quite rise to the challenge--my fault, not Vinge's.

A book that challenged your morals
John Dominic Crossan's Who Is Jesus? Answers to Your Questions About the Historical Jesus. Specifically, the notion that Christ meant that a fat man could sooner get through a needle than a rich man into heaven. By Christ's standards I--and pretty much everyone I know--qualifies as "rich."

A book that challenged your identity
Stephen King's On Writing. I like to think of myself as a writer, but King reminded me that until I really make it a priority it's simply not true.

A book series that you love
Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy. Remarkable in scope, detail, and inventiveness.

Your favorite Horror Novel
The Shining. Remarkable that, if not King's two best, easily two of his five best, were the third and fourth novels he published.

Your favorite Science Fiction Novel
See "series" entry above. Impossible to pick one of the three..

Your favorite Fantasy Novel
I adored The Neverending Story as a child and must read it again--at some point.

Your favorite Romance Novel
Stephen King's Wizard and Glass, the fourth of the seven Dark Tower novels. King takes a shot at old-fashioned, Romeo and Juliet-inspired, epic, tragic, young love and nails it completely. A gorgeous book.

Your favorite "Coming-of-Age" Novel
Tabitha King's One on One, a basketball-infused book about two teenagers in love in rural Maine. Why King is so ignored is beyond me--she's a wonderful writer.

Your favorite book not listed previously
The Known World by Edward P. Jones. For an accounting of why, see here.

Your Favorite Book of Poems
Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein.

Until Whenever

Friday, February 24, 2006

Doin' the Friday Shuffle

1. "Salon at the Claridge #1" - Stephen Sondheim - Stavisky (Film Score)
Melancholy French-sounding piece from one of Sondheim's two film scores.

2. "'Casey' (Medley): Marie" - Mandy Patinkin - Mandy Patinkin
Gorgeous melody, tender and slow and happy.

3. "Taken" - Tracy Chapman - Where You Live
A slow, clomping shuffle from Chapman's very good new album.

4. "Desafinado" - Antonio Carlos Jobim - Antonio Carlos Jobim's Finest Hour
I like Jobim, but his songs do tend to blend into each other.

5. "The Duke" - Dave Brubeck - Ken Burns' Jazz Collection: Dave Brubeck
Piano, bass, and drum, the way God intended it. This is a sweetly pretty, gently swinging ballad.

6. "When the World Ends" - Dave Matthews Band - Everyday
A decent song; it has a quiet confidence that I like.

7. "The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead" - XTC - Nonsuch
A brilliant song that imagines what might happen if Jesus Christ returned today (and if his name was Peter Pumpkinhead). "Showed the Vatican what gold's for." Indeed.

8. "The Happy Medley: My Mammy" - Mandy Patinkin - Mandy Patinkin
Mandy glories in an unabashed homage/imitation of Al Jolsen in his signature song.

9. "Belvedere, Ohio" - Howard Shore - The Silence of the Lambs (Film Score)
Stately, gray music--quite pretty, in an austere way.

10. "The Sun Is Burning (Alternate Take)" - Simon & Garfunkel - Wednesday Morning, 3 AM
S&G in gentle folky mode. Pretty, but kind of inconsequential.

Until Whenever
Can the Third Time be the Charm When Times the First and Second Were Pretty Damn Good in Their Own Right? (Or, Excuse Me While I Geek Out Some)

I thought Spider-Man was great--Maguire was perfect, the style was just right and, costume aside, Dafoe essayed a fine, fine goblin.

I thought Spider-Man 2 was even better, with a scary, credible Doc Ock and a classic Spider-Man story--Peter Parker's life sucks and he quits being Spidey--as the hook.

I was interested and excited for Spider-Man 3 from the beginning.

When I heard there were going to be two villains I was slightly nervous, but still very optimistic.
When I heard that Thomas Haden Church would be Sandman I was extremely intrigued.

When I heard that Topher Grace was going to be the other villain, with no official confirmation of who but all rumors pointing to Venom, I was confused but supremely intrigued.

And today, via PopWatch I see this:

That's not a black and white photo--it's a dark-grey costume.

I am dying to see this movie.

In 15 months.


Until Whenever

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Great Performances

Let's attempt to start a meme, shall we? Listed below are some actors, and what I consider to be their career performances - the best, most skillful acting they've ever done. Should you care to pick the meme up, simply replicate the list, add your choices, and, if you care to, slap some more actors on the thing. Shall we begin?

Tom Hanks - Forrest Gump
It's fashionable to slag on Forrest Gump, I know, but what seems to get lost in the shuffle is that when it was released, the critics were pretty impressed. What also gets lost is Gump is a difficult role. It seems like an easy role--just talk slow and silly and keep them eyes wide open at all times. But ask anyone you know to do an impression and you'll see that it's not--they sound like cartoon characters, and bad ones. Hank knew just how far he could stretch his Gump without crossing over into caricature, and that's a much more difficult line to tread than you might think.
Robert DeNiro--The Godfather Part II
Do a Brando impression, but not so that it's obvious that it's a Brando impression. DeNiro creates a younger version of a character we know that's more than just a spryer version of the man we know, but truly that same old man as a young man.

Al Pacino - The Godfather
He charts the procession from man of peace to head of mob family with a precision so detailed that you can't see any of the baby steps he takes.

Dustin Hoffman--Death of a Salesman
The makeup is nice, but it's through the performance that a then-relatively-young Hoffman makes us believe in his Willy Loman. A heartbreaking performance.

Harrison Ford--The Mosquito Coast
The film flopped, and Ford swore off playing anything but the slightest of variations on the "Harrison Ford" stock character forever. 'Tis a pity, for here he was extremely good as an unhinged man who takes his family into the jungles of South America to live.

Robin Williams--Popeye
Williams is good when he does serious, but can trend to the treacly, and his manic comedic persona can be a bit one-note. But as Popeye he was pretty much perfect, completely and wholly inhabiting the character.

Morgan Freeman--The Shawshank Redemption
Roger Ebert called it--Freeman does more with stillness than most actors can do with movement. Here, his brilliance lies in the very subtle way that he always keeps his Red present as a man who has done real evil. It's not showy, it's not a big plot point, but without that omnipresent reality Red becomes a very bland mentor-type figure.

Bill Murray--Groundhog's Day
The dilemma. If Phil's dadaist predicament doesn't feel real we're not invested in the character or the situation. It's just a long, long sketch. But if it feels too real, we're turned off by the horror of what the situation would actually be like. Acting is often about balance, and here Murray balances between those two poles with a circus performance's skill.

Tom Cruise--Jerry Maguire
Jerry feels real, and not like a construct, or a collection of Tom Cruise poses and modes.

Russell Crowe--Master and Commander
Crowe never seems like a modern man playing dress up, but like an actual 18th century captain. A difficult trick to pull off.

Johnny Depp--Ed Wood
The mask never slips.

Gene Wilder--Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
One of the most distinct performances ever captured on film.

Jeff Bridges--The Fisher King
Bridges plays an arrogant man made humble by circumstance wonderfully, by never fully redeeming him.

Jim Carrey--The Truman Show
A tough role to crack and one he nailed. A man whose paranoia turns out to be 100% justified.

John Travolta--Pulp Fiction
What's amazing about the performance is how it's a rare example of John Travolta not playing the John Travolta character, and yet in a role that makes rich hay of the standard John Travolta chacter quirks.

Jodie Foster--Maverick
Foster shows she can do light and charming as well as serious.

Nicole Kidman--To Die For
Another impressive balancing act--the character needs to be repulsive, but not too repulsive.

Julianne Moore--Boogie Nights
She gets all the dichotomies just right.

Gweneth Paltrow--Shakespeare in Love
This film seems to be thought of poorly now, but it was a sweet and tender trifle (in the good sense) of filmmaking--in large part duue to Paltrowe's ability to be luminous and real.

Kate Winslet--Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
One of those performances where you just marvel at what a real person you are seeing up there on the screen.

Julia Roberts--Erin Brokovich
A canny and wise combo of earthy realness and Julia's stock persona.

Kathy Bates--Misery
That we kind of feel sorry for Annie is a testament to how well Bates plays her.

Until Whenever
In Which I Tag Myself

From Byzantium's Shores, I take the following:

1: Black and White or Color; how do you prefer your movies?
All things being equal, color. I mean, yes, there are classic movies that should never be colorized, but I'm much happier living in a color-film world than I'd be if they'd never invented it, you know?

2: What is the one single subject that bores you to near-death?
Ironically, given the field I work in, business. I throw out the business section of the paper without even looking at it.

3: MP3s, CDs, Tapes or Records: what is your favorite medium for prerecorded music?
Digital all the way. For a non-audiophile like me, the remarkable portability is hard to trump.

4: You are handed one first class trip plane ticket to anywhere in the world and ten million dollars cash. All of this is yours provided that you leave and not tell anyone where you are going ... Ever. This includes family, friends, everyone. Would you take the money and ticket and run?
Not for, literally, any amount of money, let alone the measly ten million. If I was just dealing with parents and siblings I might think about it some, but the wife and kids? No.

5: Seriously, what do you consider the world's most pressing issue now?
I don't know enough to say. Global warming comes to mind, but, while there is no doubt it is a real phenomena, and a bad one, just how bad is still not crystal clear. Terrorism seems more provincial, but if the kind of constant violence seen in the Middle East today ever gets nuclear, that could outstrip global warming on the priority scale, and in a heartbeat.

6: How would you rectify the world's most pressing issue?
Hah! If I had any idea, I'd be doing something more useful with my time.

7: You are given the chance to go back and change one thing in your life; what would that be?
I once interviewed for an editorial job at a pornography magazine. I left partway through the interview, thinking that a 40+-hour a week job of doing nothing but reading and looking at porn might be, I don't know, bad for me. But would that job, had I gotten it, had led to a more satisfying career in publishing?

8: You are given the chance to go back and change one event in world history, what would that be?
Sad to say, but I don't know enough history to really know what major fulcrum to push. So on a smaller scale, maybe I'd try and go back and get them to not launch that '86 space shuttle. How many years back was the space program pushed with that disaster?

9: A night at the opera, or a night at the Grand Ole' Opry --Which do you choose?
Opera, assuming I get to choose the opera. I read on Alex Ross' blog The Rest Is Noise that an opera of Tony Kushner's Angels in America has been written. That gets me all a-tingle.

10: What is the one great unsolved crime of all time you'd like to solve?
No idea.

11: One famous author can come to dinner with you. Who would that be, and what would you serve for the meal?
Stephen King has influenced my love for reading, and my fiction, more than probably anyone else, so invited he is. Lets grill us up some meaty 'ol ribs, shall we?

12: You discover that John Lennon was right, that there is no hell below us, and above us there is only sky -- what's the first immoral thing you might do to celebrate this fact?
Um, that's pretty much what I figure to be the reality now anyway, so none.

Until Whenever


Byzantium's Shores has an interesting post up that spins out of my post below on the wonderful James Woods episode of ER, and I thought I respond to some points he makes.

A lot of Kelly's post comes down to the fact that he doesn't find ER to be interesting anymore--the stories, characters, arcs, are all uninteresting or, at the most, decent-but-rehashed for him. I disagree, but that's, of course, fine. To each his own and all that jazz. Some of his complaints do seen a bit unfair--he makes it sounds as if the parade of big-name guest starts he lists all took part in variations on a very similar story, when in fact each was unique in its own way--the only connecting tissue being "big-name star playing character with bad illness" which, if you think about it, is a pretty broad canvas on which to write.

Still--he doesn't like the show and think it should be cancelled. Fair enough. But here is my real question. If a show was brilliant, say for five years or so, and then becomes very good should it be put out of its mercy? (note--I understand that Kelly wouldn't place ER under this definition at all--this is a more general question, that I think applies to ER but am curious about in a much more general way). From his post, and I may be wrong, he would say yes. Roger Owen Green, in a comment on that same post of mine below, basically says, again, if I'm not misreading him, the same thing. And I, as is probably pretty clear by now, disagree.

I wrote a post a while back about how awesome it is that Ricky Henderson continues to insist on playing baseball, even if on a minor-league level, because he loves playing and feels he can still contribute. I have never seen the supposed honor in quitting at something simply because you are no longer at peak capacity. I've read so many times about how Seinfeld went on too long, or went just long enough--Kelly makes a similar claim in his post. But was Seinfeld, by any measure, a bad sitcom in its final year? Or even an average one? I'd say, no matter what you thought of the final season, by normal measuring sticks (i.e., if not measuring it against earlier, brilliant, seasons of Seinfeld) it was, at least, pretty good. Not excellent, perhaps, but pretty good. Now, in this case I know the prime drivers of the show--Seinfeld himself and Larry David--wanted out, so, of course, it should have ended. But this notion that any great, well, anything--singer, ballplayer, television show, artist, actor--should quit once they become less than great--even if they are still by any rational measure pretty damn good--baffling.

Very good is a rare enough quality in itself, even if not so rare as excellent or brilliant. To disparage very good, just because it used to be great, is, to me, sad in a way. One last example--The Simpsons. Inarguably brilliant, for a good run of years, at least six or so. Now--very good, if nowhere near the brilliance it one had. And yet so many fans, critics, and others call for its mercy killing, as if the brilliance of those six years or so can somehow be retroactively, in some sci-fi, time-traveling way, harmed by the past several seasons just-plain-good quality. Why? Why should we lose a half hour a week of good, solid (if not brilliant) laughter?

I just don't get it. So here's to the very good who used to be brilliant. May they continue to move, entertain, and amuse us, for as long as they wish and are able to do so.

Until Whenever

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Pleasantly Surprised

The first CD (not album--I had a dozen or two cassettes at the time) I owned was Tracy Chapman's eponymous debut. I new "Fast Car" from the radio and loved it, and my parents got me the CD as a present to go with my Easter basket (I was maybe 14 at the time).

The album grabbed me from the beginning, and I can still remember how happy I was to see that, when Rolling Stone did their "100 Greatest Albums of the 1980s" issue in the early 90s, they put Tracy Chapman up there at number ten. I'd stand by such accolades still today--the album I think holds up as one of the 80s freshest and most direct musical voices.

Tracy's subsequent albums were much lesser commercially speaking, with the notable exception of her mid-90s surprise hit single "Give Me One Reason," a wonderfully stripped back bluesy number. I faithfully continued purchasing each new album as it came out, and was quite pleased with some of the earlier efforts--especially the very underrated Matters of the Heart, but by this year had become a little wary of a new Chapman album, the last two or so having come across as very meh.

Enter Where You Live. I almost didn't even bother getting this disc, but the first single, "Would You Change" grabbed me a little and I was sufficiently curious to get a hold of the album, and I can happily report that it's a keeper. More so that on previous albums, she's playing with different musical sounds and ideas here, resulting in a stellar collection of songs--rich, personal, melodic examples of solid songcraft.

The song that stands out the most for me is entitled "Don't Dwell." It's a slow, moody song in a minor key that has an almost creepy feel to it, with some wonderfully soft, breathy vocals from Tracy and a wind-strewn production that gives the song an airy, cold feel. It took a few listens, but what was really grabbing me about the song eventually became evident--in the melody, in the way the sparse arrangement functions, in the off-kilter turns the melody takes, this sounds more like anything like a lost Radiohead song. And, to me, that right there encapsulates what I love about this album--that it's an album in which Chapman feels comfortable enough within her own style and idiom to try for--and nail--the aesthetic of, of all things, a Radiohead song. Brilliant. Got to iTunes and give the song (or 30 seconds of it) a listen. It's good stuff.

Until Whenever

Tuesday, February 21, 2006


I've been trying, albeit with precious little success, to see at least some of the films nominated for Oscars, since I know I'll be watching the telecast, and might enjoy it a bit more if I had more of a rooting interest in some races. Of course, with twin two-year-olds, I don't get out to the movies much, so the task is severely hampered from the git-go--especially considering that most of the multiple-nominees are not yet out on DVD. And Blockbuster's on-line service hasn't been of much help either--both The Constant Gardner and Junebug are listed as having waits.

Nonetheless, I did manage this weekend to see Junebug (my local library had a copy--libraries, it can not be stated enough, rule). Amy Adams' performance in this film got her a nomination for Best Supporting Actress, and a richly deserved one, I might add. But the film itself left me rather cold. It's a simple story, of a Chicagoan and his gallery-owning wife traveling to the South to meet his family--Mom, Dad, estranged brother, and estranged brother's very pregnant wife (that'd be Adams). But like many low-budget indies it elects to leave much unsaid as opposed to said. For example, the younger brother and our Chicagoan (I'm too lazy to look up names on IMDB--can you tell?) don't speak, pretty much at all. Serious bad blood between them. And yet we never learn why, or even delve into their relationship hardly at all.

This is one of those films where we're asked to read between the lines, which in itself is fine. But when one is asked to read pretty much everything between those lines, when none of the text is put out their on plain paper--it can get to be too much.

Don't mistake me. I liked the film. The acting was fine everywhere, and Adams was, just as billed, brilliant. I just found that it, for me at least, erred too much on the "show" side of the "show don't tell" spectrum.

Until Whenever

The U2 Canon - Zooropa

U2 has a long history of releasing smaller albums after major releases. It started out, after the release of War, with the release of a live EP - Under a Blood Red Sky. After the release of The Unforgettable Fire, they upped the ante by including some new songs along with a few live cuts well, with Wide Awake in America. And after the mega-success of The Joshua Tree they took the formula and put it on steroids, releasing the double CD Rattle and Hum, which included, basically, a complete live album and a complete album of new material.

Shortly after Achtung Baby, the band once again released a "minor" album--but this time they abandoned the live recordings documenting the previous big album and released just a new album--a new album largely recorded and written while touring for Achtung Baby. That album, Zooropa, wasn't a huge hit, but it did just fine, and earned for itself a nomination at that year's Grammys for Best Alternative Album.

Zooropa took the aesthetic the band had developed for Achtung Baby and kind of exponentialized it. The electronics, the falsetto, the drum machine-driven rhythms all were taken more center stage, with the guitars (ironically, given that The Edge got a producer credit here) taking more of a back seat. The result was admirable if hard to swallow for the more casual U2 fan--there were no anthems to hang on to here, no big U2-sound songs, and for many that proved off-putting. But this is a fine album, and one that rewards many listens.

1. "Zooropa" - A great opener, the song starts with some eerie synths that drift for a while before a soft piano figure comes in. Soon static and dim voices start muddying up the sound before the whole sonic collage collapses into a single stabbing guitar riff. Very effective. This song is a precursor to some of the more mellow stuff U2 would experiment with later; you can hear hints of, for example, The Million Dollar Hotel soundtrack here.

2. "Babyface" - The bass line from "With or Without You" makes a guest appearance for this slinky, frankly sex-themed song, a kind of dirty cousin to its more romantic forbearer.

3. "Numb" - Perhaps the most frankly experimental song on the album. A heartbeat is laid down, and a very sterile, harsh guitar riff repeats over it. Then The Edge starts repeating, in a kind of drugged-out lethargic monotone the staccato lyrics. After a while Bono and Larry (!) sing a crooning falsetto over the machine-like rumblings below. Odd, yet oddly compelling.

4. "Lemon" - An open attempt at a dance club song, with the hopping bass line and drumbeat to go with it. Bono sings the entire thing in an aching falsetto. This song has a real odd beauty to it, especially in the more open verses--"I feel, like I'm slowly, slowly, slowly slippin' under."

5. "Stay (Faraway Co Close) - A classic, and a song that should be covered for years to come. It kind of fits oddly on this album, as it's more or less a straightforward rock ballad, with a classic backbeat from Larry, a stolid bass line, and some truly wonderful singing from Bono. That rare bit of rock-solid songwriting from the band.

6. "Daddy's Gonna Pay for Your Crashed Car" - An odd industrial-sounding beast, with a frantic drum part and a grunting, grinding, low guitar riff.

7. "Some Days Are Better than Others" - A smooth, sly, silky song that doesn't take itself too seriously. Kind of a throwaway, but not a bad one.

8. "The First Time" - Kind of a forgotten U2 song. This blissfully simple hymn is built around a simple repeated strummed two-chord pattern on the electric guitar. The volume and intensity builds throughout the song, as elements are slowly, subtly added--some background synths, a quiet, serene guitar melody, some piano chords. By the end it's built to something of real power and emotion. A stunning song, really, that's undeservedly buried.

9. "Dirty Day" - A slow, loping groove in the bass defines the song, a kind of clanging and rattling piece, with Bono declaiming the lyrics in a kind of tired, resigned tone. When the full band kicks in part way through, there's some real power and heat generated.

10. "The Wanderer" - Guest singer Johnny Cash sings a song obviously tailored for him, an epic kind of country ballad put through the U2 filter, with an easy cantering electronic-tinged bass line defining the song. Gorgeously sung, with some real rumbling low notes that fit Cash to a T.

Until Whenever

Monday, February 20, 2006

Don't Buy into the Hype--They Can Still Bring the Heat

I know it's fashionable these days to slight the aged ER on NBC--it seems that nary a critic alive can name-check the show without (seemingly reflexingly) disparaging the fact that no one's yet pulled its plug. I've already laid out how I feel (here) about the show's current quality, but wanted to say a little about a recent stellar episode.

I only caught the episode, which ran a week or two ago, this weekend--the wife and I usually watch ER together, but the episode in question, the one with James Wood portraying a professor afflicted with ALS, was one she skipped, thinking (rightly) that it would be depressing.

On the surface, it seemed like another guest star Emmy-baiting episode (and it was)--kin to the Ray Liotta and Cynthia Nixon episodes from last year. ER has been doing this for a while now, bringing in name actors to play patients in stand-alone episodes that focus solely on the guest star patient. But to infer from those facts that all of these episodes are cookie-cutter in their sameness would be wrong. And this one stood out more than most.

What was most striking was the structure--we saw Woods' character, Nate, admitted to the hospital in the "present day," but throughout we got flashbacks that showed Nate being admitted to the hospital in years past--each visit marking another major degradation in his condition. So Woods got to play the present-day Nate, whose ALS has left him speechless and barely able to move his eyes or facial muscles, but he also got to play several other Nates--including sick ones, less sick ones, and a nearly completely healthy one. Much of the episode's power came from Woods' performance--he was brilliant in limning, in backwards time, the degradation of this man's life. And he, along with the writers, did a great job of making the man never a mere cliche. He wasn't the saintly soul trapped by his body, nor was he the heartless bastard we still admire despite ourselves--both routes they easily could have taken. Instead, he was both--a driven, egotistical, prickly, good, inspiring man.

But equal power came from a subplot in which we saw, gradually, that Abby knew the man, and, in fact, had him as a professor in medical school. What was truly impressive about the ep was that at the same time that in a mere 42 minutes it revealed to us a complete, heartbreaking, real character in Woods' Nate, it also taught us new things about Abby, a character we've been living with for many years now. Well-done, ER. Well done.

Until Whenever

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Is Film Music Music?

Of course. But a comment on a recent post along these lines did get me to thinking. In a comment to a post on the Oscar nominations, Tom the Dog remarked that he couldn't imagine listening to film scores--how they'd be "boring" to listen to. Noted film score fan Jaquandor responded that one can easily listen to a film score "because it's music." And, again, I agree.

But. I just got a handful of scores I'd been very curious to hear--Thomas Newman's Finding Nemo and John Williams' Oscar-nominated scores for Munich and Memoirs of a Geisha. And they are all, in very different ways, great--and certainly music. But. I was listening to a cut off of the Munich score. I haven't seen the film so can't offer up any context, but the track, "Encounter in London and Bomb Malfunctions" would seem to be a suspense-moment piece, all about slowly building tension. As such, it was pretty basic stuff--a metronomic pulse in the percussion with a slow wash of strings gradually filling in underneath, some moody stabs in the strings, some sudden crescendos. More drums.

And I at that moment kind of realized what Tom's point was. The music was, well, boring. But it was fine scoring--very appropriate for that moment in film, or so I'd imagine. I realized that while much film music both enhances the screen images and stands alone as engaging musical thoughts on their own, some film music simply doesn't hold up well absent the images.

The classic example for me is Jaws. I got the Jaws score some years back, figuring that, hey, it was Jaws--probably one of the most iconic uses of music in a film ever. And it is. It's one of Williams most inspired and brilliant creations ever, that simple two-note motif. Da-dum. Da-dum. But to put on a pair of headphones and just listen to that - Da-dum. Da-dum. - I haven't done that since I bought the thing. It just doesn't work as pure music.

But of course, much film music does. I put on my headphones to listen to the scores of Revenge of the Sith, Braveheart, The Hours, Shawshank Redemption, A.I., and many, many others quite often. And, yes, some of them have cuts that work less well as "pure music." But on the whole, these scores stand up very well, when approached just as music, and not as image accompaniment. Just not always.

Until Whenever

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Buried Beauties - Norah Jones

I'm not enough of a jazz purist to weigh in on whether Jones is a proud addition to a long tradition of jazz vocalists or a pretender, but I know what I like. And, while I'm no rabid fan, I think she's a fine, fine singer, with a nuanced tone and an easy, melancholy-flecked delivery that works wonders with the kinds of songs she sings. Truth be told, I'd love to hear her do an album of covers--not the same old tired standards that everyone and his aunt does, but the kind of light rock/pop stuff that would welcome a jazzy/country delivery. Think Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," Dylan's "Tangled Up In Blue," U2's "Stay (Faraway, So Close)"--that kind of music.

Oh, and yes--she's a truly beautiful woman.

Until Whenever

Monday, February 13, 2006

Music Morsels, Vol. XX - Queen II

Twenty letters into the alphabet and I hit a real dry patch--the entirety of the albums whose titles begin with the letter Q in my music collection comprises Queen - Greatest Hits, Queen II, and Quadrophenia. So Queen II it is.

When I was in high school, I listened to Queen a lot more than I do today. A lot of their music hasn't held up well for me as my personal aesthetic sense in regards to music has changed. That being said, I do still like the band; I do still absolutely love some of their songs; and I do still maintain a real awe of Freddie Mercury's vocal abilities. Queen II, the band's second (duh) album, is one that's held up better for me over the years than some. As a lad I was attracted to the idea of the album as a "rock opera" of some sort--with song titles like "Ogre Battle," "White Queen (As It Began)," and "The March of the Black Queen" it seems like their should be some kind of long-form story being told through these songs. But in nearly twenty years, I've never figured out just what that story might be.

Still, there are some agreeably old-school Queen rock songs here, and much less of the cheese that would, alas, come to dominate some of the latter albums. (This was from the period when they still proudly announced that "no synthesizers were used" on their albums. ) And while I was never able to suss out a storyline, much of the material here does have a pleasantly, especially for this listener, theatrical air. My favorite track from the album is probably the aforementioned "Ogre Battle," which kicks off with one of my all-time favorite kick-ass riffs, just a frenzy of tempo and guitars. Other highlights include the madrigal-esque "Nevermore," the tongue-twisting "The Fairy Teller's Masterstroke," and the opening somberness of "Father to Son." The CD reprint I have includes a few bonus tracks, including the best, most dead-on Led Zeppelin rip-off I've ever heard-- a slow, smoldering, bluesy number called "See What a Fool I've Been."

Grade: B

Until Whenever

Friday, February 10, 2006

Doin' the Friday Shuffle

1. "You Are Music" - Maury Yeston - Phantom (1992 Studio Cast)
The "other" Phantom of the Opera musical. Not nearly as well-known as the Lloyd Weber version, but good nonetheless. This is probably the score's highlight, kind of a "Music of the Night" parallel, but one that addresses the notion of the Phantom teaching Christine much more directly.

2. "Seek Up (Live)" - Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds - Live at Luther College
Acoustic, baby.

3. "Gabriel's Letter/My First Woman" - John Kander and Fred Ebb - The Kiss of the Spider Woman (Original Broadway Cast)
Not apropos to this song, but I saw Chita Rivera in this on Broadway, and at age 60-something she just kicked ass, dancing and singing like any 20-something. Remarkable.

4. "Wrong Note Rag" - Leonard Bernstein (sung by Mandy Patinkin) - Leonard Bernstein's New York
A great choice for Mandy, as his manic, excitable side fits the song very well.

5. "Short Supply" - Tracy Chapman - Matters of the Heart
One of my favorite all-time songs. It's got a remarkable celebratory quality, with the bongos and organ adding real texture and light to the urgent guitar.

6. "In My Secret Life" - Leonard Cohen - Ten New Songs
from Cohen's later speak-sing period. I really think he'd be better off at this stage writing for someone else. from the admittedly little I know of Cohen, his songs are invariably better when covered.

7. "Rooftops/Wild Ride" - Danny Elfman - Batman Returns (Score)
I like this score overall, but this is admittedly a bit of boilerplate "Elfman chase" stuff.

8. "Oh nobody knows when the Lawd is goin' to call" - George Gershwin - Porgy and Bess
Ruminations during a game of craps. This whole opening sequence of the opera is just stellar in how it introduces the community of Catfish Row that plays such a big part in the opera.

9. "The Divers" - Thomas Newman - Finding Nemo (Score)
Tense strings and clarinet. Just got this.

10. "Ti Moune" - Lynn Flaherty and Ahrens - Once on this Island
I've read great things about this score, but I've never gotten into it. Not sure why.

Until Whenever

Not too much to say, actually. I find it somewhat amusing that one of the very few nominated (for anything) albums I actually bought, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, won Album of the Year. Kind of dishonest for me to call the win "well-deserved" since I know pretty much zilch about the competition, but I always like seeing the boys get recognized. And a five-for-five sweep is some substantial recognition going on there.

I will say that the Song of the Year category always seems like an odd once to me. It's meant to be a songwriting award--it goes not to the artist or producer but just to the songwriter. As such, it should, or at least I think, be meant to honor a song that's, well, well-written--a song that evidences its overwhelming quality on the page, not just on record or on stage. Now, I love me my U2--that's clear. But they are not, nor have they ever been a "songwriting" band. It was Dylan who said something about how great U2's songs are, but that only they can play them. And there's some truth to that.

Take a look at the song they won for Wednesday night: "Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own." A great, great song--passionately felt and emotional. But if you look at the sheet music (you can actually view a page at the on-line sheet music store musicnotes, if you install some software), it's a very, very simple song, as are many of U2's songs. Simple chords, a simple rhythm, not much fancy going on harmonically or melodically. Again--I love the song. I'm not knocking it. But as a pure piece of songwriting, as a composed set of notes and lyrics that you could hand to other artists to have them sing, it's not brilliant. And certainly not the best example of the craft of songwriting from all of last year.

U2's magic happens not on paper, but in the way that they take those basic musical ideas and transform them, either on stage or in the studio. It's a particular kind of alchemy, and it's breathtaking. Remember--huge U2 fan here. But as pure songwriting? Brilliant? Not really.

Now, this is more about the Grammys than U2. Here are the last 15 Song of the Year winners:

2004 - John Mayer, "Daughters"
2003 - Richard Marx and Luther Vandross, "Dance with My Father"
2002 - Jesse Harris, "Don't Know Why"
2001 - Alica Keys, "Fallin'"
2000 - U2, "Beautiful Day"
1999 - Itaal Shuur and Rob Thomas, "Smooth"
1998 - James Horner and Will Jennings, "My Heart Will Go On"
1997 - John Leventhal and Shawn Colvin - "Sunny Came Home"
1996 - Gordon Kennedy, Tommy Sims, and Wayne Kirkpatrick, "Change the World"
1995 - Seal, "Kiss from a Rose"
1994 - Bruce Springsteen, "Streets of Philadelphia"
1993 - Alan Menken and Tim Rice, "A Whole New World"
1992 - Eric Clapton and Will Jennings, "Tears in Heaven"
1991 - Irving Gordon, "Unforgettable"
1990 - Julie Gold, "From a Distance"

Reasonable folks may differ, and there are some good examples of songwriting in there, but I'd suggest that there are also a lot of wins where pure songwriting isn't really being honored. Like I said, it's an odd category, and one where I realy wish the criteria and voting were more rigorous.
But what do I know?

Until Whenever

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Meme Time

Might as well answer this quiz, as taken from Byzantium's Shores.

Have you ever . . .

1. Smoked cigarettes - Not a one.

2. Smoked a cigar - Or a one of these, either.

3. Broken a CD - Um, sure. Plenty.

4. Crashed a friend's car - A friend's? No. Mine? Several.

5. Stolen a car  - Nope.

6. Been in love - Only once. Still am, in fact.

7. Been dumped - Yep. By the same female referenced above, in point of fact. A feyearsls later we rectified the situation.

8. Shoplifted - Not that I can recall.

9. Been fired - Can't say that I have. (Cue frantic knocking of wood).

10. Been in a fist fight - Eight grade. A classmate thought I had taken his hackysack after a lunchtime session. In the locker room after lunch, as we were changing for gym, he pushed me, demanding his hackysack. I sprung up and pushed him back. Fists were raised. Nervous and unsure of what to do in a fight, I began to loudly sing the theme to Rocky. I lost.

11. Snuck out of your house - Nope. 'Rents were pretty easygoing and I was a pretty easygoing kid, so that wasn't really an issue.

12. Had feelings for someone who didn't have them back - Of course. Starting in sixth grade.

13. Been arrested - Just the odd traffic ticket.

14. Made out with a stranger - Nope.

15. Gone on a blind date - Yes, kind of. Went to a college dance with a girl who was reputed to "like me" whom I didn't know. Didn't go well.

16. Lied to a friend - Of course.

17. Had a crush on a teacher - No big ones, but plenty of idle ones.

18. Skipped school - Not a once. I was an obedient little geek.

19. Slept with a co-worker - No.

20. Seen someone die - No. Be nice to keep that streak going for a good, long time, no?

21. Been on a plane - Several times, but not frequent-flyer level. Back to NY from London was the longest. That was an uncomfortable flight.

22. Thrown up in a bar - No. Oddly enough, I hung out in a bar a lot as a kid (8-12 years old), when my Dad owned one. As an adult I have hardly ever stepped into one, teetotaler that I am.

23. Taken painkillers - Mild stuff after a knee scope.

24. Love someone or miss someone right now - I miss my two girls every day I'm not with them.

25. Laid on your back and watched cloud shapes go by - Has anyone not?

26. Made a snow angel - Ditto.

27. Played dress up - Apart from acting in plays, no.

28. Cheated while playing a game - I'm sure.

29. Been lonely - Is there a human being on this planet who hasn't been lonely?!?!

30. Fallen asleep at work/school - No.

31. Used a fake id - Teetotalers find much less need for such a beast.

32. Felt an earthquake - No.

33. Touched a snake - Yes.

34. Ran a red light - Left on a red once. Ticket.

35. Been suspended from school - No.

36. Had detention - No.

37. Been in a car accident - Several.

38. Hated the way you look - Often.

39. Witnessed a crime - Some fistfights. That's technically a crime, yes?

.40. Pole danced -Hee, hee. No.

41. Been lost - Yes.

42. Been to the opposite side of the country - Nope. An East Coaster, I've only been as far as New Orleans.

43. Felt like dying - Not literally. But close.

44. Cried yourself to sleep - Yes.

45. Played cops and robbers - Or some variation thereof.

46. Sang karaoke - Only once. And badly. But I've sung on stage many a time. Odd that.

47. Done something you told yourself you wouldn't - ?

48. Laughed till some kind of beverage came out of your nose - A few times. Not a pleasant feeling.

49. Caught a snowflake on your tongue - Yes.

50. Kissed in the rain - Yes. Very nice.

51. Sing in the shower - Not recently, but yes.

52. Made love in a park - No, alas.

53. Had a dream that you married someone - No.

54. Glued your hand to something - No.

55. Got your tongue stuck to a flag pole - No.

56. Worn the opposite sex's clothes - No.

57. Had an orgasm - Yes. Yes.

58. Sat on a roof top - Yes. I sit on my rooftop every X-Mas to hang the lights. Feels much sturdier than the ladder.

59. Didn't take a shower for a week - Not quite a week, I don't think.

60. Ever too scared to watch scary movies alone - No.

61. Played chicken - No.

62. Been pushed into a pool with all your clothes on - No.

63. Been told you're hot by a complete stranger - No. Not once. Imagine it!

64. Broken a bone - Hairline fracture of the nose. See #10.

65. Been easily amused - Every day.

66. Laugh so hard you cry - No - that particular phenomenon doesn't seem to affect me.

67. Mooned/flashed someone - No.

68. Cheated on a test - I don't think so.

69. Forgotten someone's name - All the time. People at work, extended family members of the wife, long-ago classmates.

70. Slept naked - Sure.

71. Gone skinny dipping in a pool- No, alas.

Been kicked out of your house - No.

73. Blacked out from drinking - No. Teetotaler, remember?

74. Played a prank on someone - Small stuff.

75. Gone to a late night movie - Yes, but not post-midnight.

76. Made love to anything not human - Ew. Just ew.

77. Failed a class - Calculus Four and a Chemistry class - Molecular Binding maybe?

78. Choked on something you're not supposed to eat - No.

79. Played an instrument for more than 10 hours - No.

80. Cheated on a significant gf/bf - Not even on an isignificant one.

81. Ate a whole package of Oreos - Not a whole package, but certainly far too many to be seemly.

82. Thrown strange objects - By some perspectives, a discus could be considered a strange object.

83. Felt like killing someone - Yes, but never enough to, say, have to check myself to prevent the impulse from becoming real.

84. Thought about running away - No.

85. Ran away - See above.

86. Did drugs - No.

87. Had detention and not attend it - No.

88. Yelled at parents - Plenty 'o times.

89. Made parent cry - Plenty o' times.

90. Cried over someone - And the hat trick.

91. Owned more than 5 puppies - No.

92. Dated someone more than once - Yes. See numbers six and seven.

93. Have a dog - A few as a kid.

94. Have a cat - Technically, they were my sisters.'

95. Own an instrument - A digital piano and a guitar.

96. Been in a band - No. Choirs, no bands.

97. Had more than 25 sodas in one day - I hope not.

98. Made out with a member of the same sex - Nope.

99. Shot a gun - No.

100. Been online for more than 5 hours straight - All the time, at work.

Until Whenever
Things I Liked About Serenity, Which I Finally Got Around to Seeing

How it worked both as a stand-alone film and a continuation of the series. It didn't accomplish this perfectly, but to perfectly serve two masters would be a lot to ask, no? To do it well at all is an accomplishment.

That they answered open plotlines from the series, definitively.

That they didn't answer all open plotlines from the series.

That the action and fight scenes, while hectically cut, were always comprehensible and clear.

That the notion of sacrifices being necessary for the greater good was made explicit, not just spoken about.

Summer Glau's performance as River--it's hard to play a character like River (mentally unbalanced/all-powerful) without devolving into caricature.

The understated performance of Chiwetel Ejiofer as The Operative.

Nathan Fillion's performance as Mal. He showed, to me, a real presence here, but one that was always married to the character, not to developing his own identifiable "screen presence" that he could repeat in film after film.

The humor--plenty of trademark Whedon quips to go around, and nary a clunker among them.

Until Whenever

Monday, February 06, 2006

And Again

Continuing my thoughts on the second season of the late, lamented Once and Again:

Episode 3, "I Can't Stand Up (For Falling Down)"
This could so easily have been a tired, cliche-ridden "been there-done that" kind of episode--teenager rebels by joining a band and parents freak. Instead, this Eli-centric episode managed to make the same tired material fresh, simply by looking at the elements honestly. The balance parents must strike between honoring their children's independence and still providing guidance and control is a tough one, and this episode limned it out for us wonderfully.

Episode 4, "Feast or Famine"
A Thanksgiving episode, with the mixed families gathering at Lily's. The arrival of Rick's mother (a wonderful Barbara Barrie) puts the spotlight on Rick, and again I'm struck by how well Campbell inhabits the character. The writers get in some very evocative wordless moments as well--particularly a well-timed bit with Lily putting Rick at the head of the table and Rick and Aaron (Lily's mentally ill brother) trading glances over the import of such a move. The episode also introduces, very nicely and without melodrama, the issue of Jessie's eating disorder, which will become a major pot thread through the season. The moment between Rick and Jessie when he tries, and fails miserable, to address the issue with her is a marvel of writing.

Until Whenever

Friday, February 03, 2006

What I've Been Reading

A rifle through the 'ol nightsand reveals:

V for Vendetta, Alan Moore and David Lloyd
A classic I'd never read. I liked it, but I didn't love it--nowhere near Watchmen love, for example. Maybe I'm just too out of practice reading comics, but I had trouble following the story beats that were told visually--like the whole scene at the TV station. Still, I could easily see the cinematic potential and am now interested in the film, which I decidedly was not before.

Cell, Stephen King
Classic King. A tight (for him) horror novel, with what seem at first glance like some pretty damn stale tropes (zombies, end-of-world-scenarios) redeemed by unexpected developments and a laser-like tight focus, with all of the action and story seen from pretty much exclusively one character's point of view. Fair warning--King can still tear your heart out when you least expect it, so be on your toes.

The Astonishing X-Men, Joss Whedon and John Cassiday
Solid, good-times superhero stuff. Whedon's particular voice fits into the X-Men universe like a foot into a well-made shoe, and this second arc had all the stuff you'd like in a Marvel comic. Fights with big Godzilla-esque things, quippy interactions with guest stars (The Fantastic Four, here), and fair surprises. I'm very curious to see where the duo take their story after the revelations at the end regarding Professor X.

The Best American Science and Nature Writing, 2005
Some great pieces. Favorites include Jenny Everett's "My Little Brother on Drugs," a personal look at the use of growth hormones to make short kids less short; Jennifer Kahn's "The Homeless Hacker," a look at the hacker who got into the New York Times database, making them a bit angry; Michael Specter's "Miracle in a Bottle," a look at the thriving supplements industry; and Cliff Stoll's "The Curious History of the First Pocket Calculator," a lovely piece about a concentration camp inmate who invented a purely mechanical, pepper grinder-shaped and -sized calculator.

On Beauty, Zadie Smith
Just started, but great googly-moogly can this woman write.

Until Whenever
Doin' the Friday Shuffle

1. "One More Beautiful Song" - Edward Kleban - A Class Act (Original Broadway Cast)
A very sweet and tender ode to the Broadway ballad.

2. "Lacrimosa dies illa" - Benjamin Britten - War Requiem
Choir and soprano lamenting.

3. "You've Got What Gets Me" - Ella Fitzgerald - Ella Fitzgerald Sings the George Gershwin Songbook
Old-school swing, big band style.

4. "The Rise and Fall from Grace" - Danny Elfman - Batman Returns
Heavy on the organ, with a side of plucked strings.

5. "Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody - Mandy Patinkin - Mandy Patinkin
If you like your Mandy completely, irrevocably over-the-top, this is the song for you. By the end he's making Al Jolson (whom this is an homage to) look like Clint Eastwood in the emoting department.

6. "Liasons" - Mandy Patinkin - Sings Sondheim
A 180 degree turn from the previous song. Soft, piano-only accompanied Mandy singing quietly and reverently.

7. "Mornin', Lawyer, Lookin' for Someone?" - George Gershwin - Porgy and Bess
When all is said and done, a hundred years hence, this very well might be the only American opera still being performed regularly. It deserves its spot in the repertoire, that's for sure.

8. "I Must Get on that Ship" - Maury Yeston - Titanic (Original Broadway Score)
Irony-infused anthem, with the cast of characters rhapsodizing about their chance to set sail on the Titanic.

9. "Bathtub" - The Million Dollar Hotel Band - The Million Dollar Hotel (Soundtrack)
Moody, atmospheric cut from the soundtrack. Breathy sax, shimmering synths, and languid guitars.

10. "The Logical Song" - Supertramp - Best of Supertramp
I love this song.

Until Whenever

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

I Was There

The estimable Terry Teachout (and, yes, there is a contractual edict requiring all bloggers to refer to him as such), has a lovely post today on the arts events--actors, plays, singers, musicians, etc.--that he will be able to, one day, regale a younger audience with tales of having seen live. At the end of his copious list, he asks, somewhat mischievously, "Does anyone else feel a meme coming on?"

Yes. Yes I do. (I'm taking the intent to be not to just list the live concerts/plays/etc. you've seen, but the ones you can envision bragging about 30 years hence).

I saw Donna Murphy in Passion--twice.

I had Stan "The Man" (another contractual thing) Lee sign a Marvel coffee table book at a bookstore.

I saw Bob Dylan live in concert, playing an electric keyboard, of all things.

I saw U2 in concert, several times.

I saw the original cast of Rent from the front row, and could make out countless individual droplets of spit from many a cast member.

I saw Jerry Lewis in Damn Yankees.

I saw Bernadette Peters in Gypsy.

I saw Mandy Patinkin in concert, twice.

I saw Anthony LaPaglia give one hell of a performance in Arthur Miller's A View from the Hill.

And, last, perhaps off-topic but nonetheless apt, I saw the twin towers fall--the first from a window on the Jersey City side of the Hudson, the second in my rear-view mirror on the New Jersey Turnpike.

Anyone else?

Until Whenever