Tuesday, September 25, 2012


The good folks over at A List of Things Thrown Five Minutes Ago have reminded me that The Princess Bride turned 25 today. What a damn fine movie. Rather than share quotes or theories as to why this odd hybrid of comedy, romance, satire, and adventure works as well as it does, I thought I'd encourage anyone who hasn't to check out the "cast reminisces" feature on the DVD (I assume it's on the new Blu-Ray as well). My two favorite anecdotes from that feature:

Robin Wright Penn tells a story about how cold it was filming outside and how in her light gown she would be shivering and how Andre the Giant would come up behind her and lay his massive hand on her head, the heel of his palm at the nape of her neck and his fingers coming down in front of her face and how it would warm her up just perfectly and as she tells it she tears up and now I am too.

Mandy Patinkin (holla) tells a story about prepping for filming the "Inigo kills the Count" scene, and how he had recently lost his father to cancer, and how before filming he did laps, walking around the castle, just thinking about the cancer and how it killed his father, and how much he hated it, how when he filmed that scene it's cancer he's talking to, not Rugen, and damn now I'm crying again.

Damn I love this movie.

(A brief moment of silence for the passing of the Goldman/Guettel musical version)

Until Whenever

Sunday, September 23, 2012

U2 Ranked - #161- #155

We begin.

#161. “Elvis Presley and America” – The Unforgettable Fire
So here it is. The worst U2 song. Famous as an improvised first take, this droning, mumbled, repetitive song stands as one of those “experiments” that just didn’t work. Even the mix itself sounds half-hearted, with the vocals lost, the drums faded, and that damn interminable strummed guitar figure so very flat sounding. And at nearly six-and-a-half minutes, it just does. Not. End.

Now, let us not lose fact of the sight that failure is critical to innovation, and that experiments like this are important to the development of artists. I’m glad U2 tried this. I’m not sure it needed to be on the album. 

#160. “Deep in the Heart” – The Joshua Tree (bonus track)
When U2 released a 25th anniversary edition of its (arguably) most important album a few years back, it contained a whole disc of bonus tracks. This track feels less like a song than a collection of boilerplate U2-isms from the period. The parts sound familiar but lazily assembled and executed. Even the title (and refrain) sounds like almost like a U2 parody and less like a really lived-in idea. Bono gives in maybe too much to his “impassioned falsetto” tic, while The Edge tosses off pretty standard-issue Edge ringing figures before trying out a slow solo that sounds like a kid in a guitar shop noodling around, and not a real solo. Nothing worth hearing here.


#159. “4th of July” – The Unforgettable Fire
The Unforgettable Fire gets the ignoble award of having two songs in the bottom three. Given the heights a few of its tracks will reach (it’s not a spoiler to say that it will be a long while before I start writing about “Pride (In the Name of Love),” “Bad,” or the title track), it’s a bit surprising, but there it is.

This song is that rare beast, a U2 instrumental, and while its slow, languid rhythms have some appeal, for the most part it’s a repetitive drone of a piece, with Edge soundscapes washing back and forth in the background while Adam plays a basic bass figure over and over in the foreground. Rock instrumentals are hard to pull off, but can be great. This is not.

#158. “Alex Descends Into Hell for a Bottle of Milk/Korova 1”
This oddity is a Bono and The Edge contribution to a Royal Shakespeare Company production of "A Clockwork Orange.” A strange bit of electronica-influenced background stuff, opened by a boy soprano singing some Latin, it’s barely a song at all, and really more of a short score piece that doesn’t hang together at all. Worth a listen for the novelty of it, but pretty disposable.


#157. “The Refugee” – War
This deep cut off of War has an odd bongo type of beat, with an impassioned Bono chant leading things off, and it has not really dated well. The shouted lyrics, the attempt at different percussion come off, not as U2 excited by something different, but rather more as U2 trying something different just for the sake of it. At the same time, the halfhearted attempt at political lyrics (“Her mama say one day she’s gonna’ live in America.”) some across as a confused attempt to keep with the album’s political leanings, rather than an effort to say something.


#156. “Two Hearts Beat As One” – War
U2 has dabbled in dance music at different parts of its career, and this song kind of qualifies. The problem is that the verses are OK U2 energetic rock stuff, while the chorus abruptly becomes this bouncy, poppy thing that just doesn’t fit with the rest of the song. Not to mention the sheer laziness of the title and chorus “”Two hearts beat as one – really?) and you have another War track that, while pleasant enough, is hardly essential.


#155. “The Playboy Mansion” – Pop
Pop is famously held up as an example of what happens when a band strays too far from what it does well and experiments in places it doesn’t belong. And while on the whole I strenuously disagree with that assessment, I’ll concede that this song is an experiment that does not come out well. Its attempts at hip-hop-styled beats, club rhythms, and the kind of Moby-influenced looping popular at the time all fail, while the self-consciously quirky lyrics about Michael Jackson, Coke, and OJ Simpson dated the song pretty quickly. As a time capsule piece “The Playboy Mansion” has its charms, but that’s about it.


Until Whenever

Thursday, September 20, 2012

We Actually Hear the People Sing!

I’ve been hearing for a while how the actors in the Christmas Day-opening Les Miserables film did all of their own singing (yawn) on set (huh?), in contrast to the near-universal practice of recording the score in-studio and then lip syncing to playback on set. The short preview feature below goes into some detail into the rationale behind the move as well as how they did it.*

I’ve long felt that movie musicals suffer from that lip syncing model simply because we can see and feel the physical tension caused by singing, and when that is absent we, sub-consciously perhaps, miss it. But the point made within this video about not having to make acting choices months ahead of time—especially for a musical like Les Miserables that is through-sung—is one I had never considered, and really a big deal. So many choices are locked in ahead of time when you pre-record, and the live singing really does open up a whole new world in terms of creating character and scenes.

But the method they used—of having a live pianist on set playing the songs directly into discrete ear pieces—seems to have engendered a kind of freedom for the actors I’m not sure will serve them well. A few actors here, Hugh Jackman among them, talk about how the technique enabled them to play freely with, not just phrasing and dynamics, but tempo and rhythms. And my immediate instinct was to question that—after all, isn’t tempo and rhythm the composer’s arena? I’m not sure the music is going to be best served by the actors second-guessing the choices the composers long ago made. Does Jackman really know better than Claude-Michel Schönberg what speed a song should take?

I’m fascinated to find out.

Until Whenever

*One tidbit they don’t discuss, but that was in, I believe, the Entertainment Weekly preview article, is that they could get around the difficulty of capturing solid recordings on set and in live atmospheres by giving all the actors body mikes—which, in post, were then just digitally erased. Genius.

The New Alan Thicke

Every time I watch Parenthood, I am delighted by the just-perfect use of a Bob Dylan song (“Forever Young”) as the theme music. And every time I feel that delight, I ponder the notion that all TV shows would be well-served to use Dylan as their theme music. To wit:

·         How I Met Your Mother – “Mama, You’ve Been on My Mind”

·         The Good Wife – “She’s Your Lover Now”

·         Treme – “The Levee’s Gonna’ Break”

·         Boardwalk Empire – “When the Deal Goes Down”

·         Hung – “Lay, Lady Lay”

·         The West Wing – “Political World”

·         The Wire – “Everything Is Broken”

·         Animal Practice – “God Gave Names to All the Animals”

·         Game of Thrones – “Masters of War”

·         Sons of Anarchy – “Highway 61”

·         Justified – “Thunder on the Mountain”

·         That 70’s Show – “Rainy Day Woman  #12 & 35”

Got more?

Until Whenever

Sunday, September 16, 2012

I Don't Mean to Bug 'Ya

A few years back, I stumbled across a blogger who had ranked every Beatles song. “Damn,” I thought to myself. “What a cool idea.”*

Now that I’ve (or so it would seem) decided to start blogging again, I’ve been thinking of what a good long-term blogging project might be. And I think this is it. (Hypothetical) longtime readers can probably guess where this is going next, but for those new to these byways, Tosy and Cosh is a long-time, somewhat rabid, loyal-to-a-fault, die-hard U2 fan. So the notion of ranking every U2 song appeals.

As a matter of pure geekiness, I have long maintained a rough list of my 20 favorite U2 songs, both in various paper-based and digital forms and in my head. But it’s been a long while since I revisited that list, and some shake-up is due. Moreover, the idea of revisiting the entire U2 catalog really sits nicely with that small piece of me that craves order and gravitates towards completism. It’s a small part, and one I can usually fend off, but it’s there.

The other blogging project of note that got me thinking about this was this ongoing project by James Smythe at the Guardian to reread and comment on the entire Stephen King corpus, in chronological order of publication. In fact, I was sorely tempted to try to ape him and do my own walk back, but the scope of that reread just, frankly scared the crap out of me. That’s thousands and thousands of pages of King to read, and enjoyable as such a project would be, that’s a hell of a time commitment. Listening to all of U2’s songs, while not insubstantial, is more manageable.

So—a few notes about process, criteria, and other miscellany: 

·         I am considering U2 originals only. No “Satellite of Love.” No “Paint It Black.” No “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home).

·         Whenever I think of the notion of “best” lists I struggle with the distinction between “my favorites” and what I think objectively to be great. For example, my favorite film ever is The Shawshank Redemption. And yet I’ve no illusion that it is the “best film ever” b any reasonable objective yardstick. My solution here is to try and inject a fair bit of objectivity into the proceedings, and to acknowledge that some U2 songs I love are lesser than some great songs I’ve tired of or never hooked into as easily, but to basically admit defeat and acknowledge that this list will be largely “one U2 nerd’s opinion.”

·         My initial thought is to chunk these up into five-song posts, but we’ll see how that goes. I can’t pretend to any kind of rigid methodology here.

So that's it--the 2012-2013 "Big Project." I’m excited. Are you?**

Until Whenever

*I just Googled quickly to see if I could find that blog, but I’m getting a RED security warning when trying to go there, so we’ll leave that alone.

**You don’t have to be excited, really. “Mildly curious” will be great.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Thanks, Spotify! I think?

So I had been looking forward to the release of the soundtrack to The Master, by Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood, ever since I learned he was doing it. Greenwood scored Paul Thomas Anderson's last film, There Will Be Blood, and that score stands as one of my favorites from the last decade of film scoring.

Having received some iTunes gift cards from my loving wife I thought I'd grab it this morning. Then I remembered Spotify. Sure enough, they have it up and I am listening to it right now. And it's good. But I'm not sure it's great. Specifically, I'm not sure it's so good that I need to own it. And yes, had it bowled me over I may well have bought it, free availability on Spotify notwithstanding. Why? Because only by buying it can I take it with me wherever I go, without worrying about whether or not I have access to WiFi or a data connection*.

I am fascinated by what being a music fan means these days in terms of access to music. And what it must be doing to artists' wallets. Because I know that my listening to an album on Spotify means much less money in the artists' pockets than me buying the album on iTunes. Which in turn, I believe, means less money in the artists' pockets than me buying the physical CD. And yet I feel hard-pressed to convince myself to buy CDs, rather than listen for free, even though I know I should do more of that. And a year ago, I would have bought that The Master album on iTunes. And today I won't. And I feel kind of bad about it.

Is that weird?

While we try and figure this all out, why don't you listen to some of Greenwood's score for There Will Be Blood? It really is something:

Until Whenever

*See, to me, the whole notion of not needing a personal collection of music, because access to the "cloud" means you can always get what you need, is premature. Because I don't always have access to the cloud. Very often, it's just me and my iPod, no PC, no WiFi, no 3G, 4G, or LTE, whatever the hell that is.

Monday, September 10, 2012

I Loves It, Porgy

I love Porgy and Bess. But I love it as music, never having seen a production. It’s a remarkable, gorgeous, complete score that never fails to ensnare me. But last Friday, after a few decades of admiring the music and collecting different versions of it (the famed “complete” Houston opera recording, the Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald set, the Miles Davis set), I finally saw an honest-to-God production of Porgy and Bess.

This production, the current Broadway revival, has had its share of criticism and controversy. The book has been revised, the music cut up and re-orchestrated, the piece shortened considerably—all in an effort to create a version of this piece of theater that is less “opera” and more “musical theater.” Add to that the very public exception very public figures like Stephen Sondheim took to some of the statements the revisers made during the rehearsal process about how they were “improving” the drama, and this was a production I was wondering if I would like. 

Here’s the thing. Terry Teachout, in his negative review, notes that “If you've never seen or heard ‘Porgy,’ you might well find this version blandly pleasing. Otherwise, you'll be appalled.” And while I don’t doubt that a full operatic version would have offered more pleasures than this scaled-down and choppy version did, I did not find it “bland.” To the contrary, I absolutely loved it, even as I could see and sense the seams and even as I intellectually realized that this was to some degree a facsimile and not the real thing.

Why? Two words: Audra McDonald. Upon our entry into the Richard Rodgers theater, I spied with my little eye notices about cast replacements. And indeed, two of the three leads (Norm Lewis and David Alan Grier, as Porgy and Sporting Life*) were out. But not Ms. McDonald. I said to my wife a few times on the ride home that McDonald is a national treasure. Because she is. This was my third time seeing her (having seen her in the original Broadway productions of Ragtime and Marie Christine) and she has gotten better with age. There were vocal moments that had me literally agape, stunned by the power and precision with which she yields that remarkable instrument. True, her replacement Porgy was not up to the challenge of going toe-to-toe with her, and there were times you almost felt bad for the guy, and wondered if she should have modulated her performance down to better mesh with him. But you know what? We paid $200, American, largely for the chance to her McDonald tackle this role with all the power at her disposal, and I’m OK with her ignoring the imbalance and playing to the hilt.

Beyond her performance, the play’s story and, most importantly, cast of characters—that close-knit community of Catfish Row—impressed me and grabbed me. The listening experience had never really delivered the story or characters of this play to me completely, and even in this truncated version those elements hit home.
So, yes, I would very much like to see a complete, operatic version at some point. But even in this reduced form, the bones of the work were strong and sturdy enough to impress and move me.
*Sporting Life’s understudy was Cedric Neal. As we waited for the show to start and I thumbed through the Playbill, I saw that he had been in Friday Night Lights. And when he first came on stage I was curious to see if I would recognize him from there. It took a minute, but I realized soon enough that this was Kennard, the criminal thug who tries to ensnare Vince back into a life of crime in Season 5. Did anyone else watch those episodes and assume Kennard was a damn fine song-and-dance man? Me either.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

God, I Miss Johnny Cash

I agree that Johnny Cash's cover of Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt" is a stunning performance, and very worthy of its reputation as one of the greatest covers ever. But I'd suggest that late-stage Johnny Cash tossed off many revelatory covers, great covers of great songs that maybe you haven't heard. So:

"The Mercy Seat"

This Nick Cave cover starts off with a simple guitar figure, a simple scale almost, up and down. up and down. And then Cash starts with some spoken word, then kind of sing-speaks a little. Then we get the chorus, and realize the song is being sung by a man sitting on the electric chair. Organ joins in. The sound is thicker. By the time we hit the instrumental break we've got an old-time, apocalyptic rolling piano that just gives you chills.

"In My Life""

I maintain that this cover stands as the best version of this song there is, by simple virtue of the weight Cash can give it as an actual old man, and not almost all the young or middle-aged men or women that did it originally and since. When he sings that refrain - "in my life" - you feel the length of that life in your bones, and the reminiscing becomes just that much more powerful.

"You Are My Sunshine"

Can we get Cash to sing an album of nothing but old classics like this? Oh, right. He's dead. Damn it.

"You'll Never Walk Alone."

Can we get Cash to sing an album of nothing but old show tunes like this? Oh, right. He's dead. Damn it.

Until Whenever

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

The Pinkman Chronicles

On a recent episode of Pop Culture Happy Hour, the gang chatted about what makes a spin-off character a good character to spin off, as well as which characters, um, maybe, not so much.

Amongst talk of how the wacky character (cough, cough, Dwight Schrute) is almost never the right character to spin off, and how it’s the relatively calm characters who can serve as the, well, calm centers of their own shows, I remembered a thought I had a few years back when NBC tried to spin Joey, from Friends, into his own show.

As everyone knows, Joey failed. And while one could peg that on Joey’s status as one of the more exaggerated Friends, I’d argue that by the show’s end he had become pretty nuanced and “calm,” and that from that criteria he could have anchored a spin-off fine.

No, what I think sunk Joey was the simple notion that for 11 or so years, viewers had followed these six friends, and fallen in love with them as a unit. And that what made the Joey spin-off unpalatable was that viewers did not want to visit a world where the gang had been broken up. We still wanted to believe that these six friends hung out all the time, having more adventures, just with kids getting more and more in the way. Not that one of the gang was an entire country away not seeing Ross or Rachel or Chandler or Phoebe or Monica all the time. 

It’s my contention that a spin-off can’t work unless the character being spun off is a character we don’t mind the original gang losing. So Cheers fans may have loved Frasier, but within the world of that show Frasier leaving the bar was a natural development. Had they tried a Norm spin-off, I bet it would have failed horribly. We wouldn't have wanted to see Norm away from the bar.

How can we apply this theory to today’s sitcom hits?

·       How I Met Your Mother – None of the core gang of five could be spun off.

·       Parks and Recreation – We wouldn’t want to see Ron leave, but April and Andy? It’s not that Leslie and the gang don’t love them, but they also could let them go. Whereas, again, the Friends gang was a very decisive set of six.

·       The Office – Given the structure of the show, we could see any of the employees leave and be OK with it. It’s a job. People leave.

·       Modern Family, The Middle, Raising Hope – The families have been set up as too close-knit. Would have to be a periphery character (families are harder to spin off members from that workplaces, but not impossible. Depends on how much the show has set them up as a single, close unit).

·        Curb Your Enthusiasm, Two and a Half Men – Anyone. These people all hate each other.

·        Big Bang Theory – A trickier one. I would argue that they haven’t painted the trio of friends as too co-dependent. A spin-off could work. I think, though, that Penny and Leonard would be hard though. As lackluster as some of found that romance, I think the audience would object to a Penny spin off without Leonard.

Note that in the above scenarios, I don’t literally mean any character could be spun off from, say, The Office – other factors, including the wacky factor the PCHH gang expounded on, would come into play. But purely on “the audience doesn’t want to see people leave the group factor, I think I’m close.

Until Whenever

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Walter White Wins

The Internet is not lacking for reactions to, parsings of, and discussion about Breaking Bad. So, rather than add to the pile, my thought, after watching the season finale last night, was, not to offer up any kind of season summary or broad reaction piece, but to talk about the one moment from this season that sticks with me.







That moment, in a different way than expected, is the very last moment. After last season’s exploding wheelchair of an ending, I had been expecting some kind of similarly monumental shock here, some moment of unspeakable violence. The season had been charting the depths to which Walter White would descend to achieve his ambitions, and several signs had suggested to me we might find him hitting his nadir by finally bringing the violence he had immersed himself in home to his family. Specifically the way Skylar’s plot had developed—the way they made clear just how toxic the marriage had become, the “suicide attempt,” the setting up of a situation where she had taken Walt’s kids from him—had me thinking Walt would end the season by killing his wife so he could rule his meth empire with his children his once again. Add to that the season-opening flash-forward that showed us that, a year from now, Walt will be desperate and living under an assumed identity (and the fact that, in that flash-forward, Walt had to make his own “52” out of bacon, a task normally attended to by his wife—a further clue to her death! That I was wrong about!), and it was clear that a fall was coming. And, presumably, a violent one.
What I didn’t foresee (again, because I am dumb) was that what this season was really about was Walter White winning. He gets what he wanted in the end – an empire that he controls and that makes him rich. And what I really didn’t foresee was that he would then become tired of his empire and give it all up to be with his family, now unburdened by his criminal activity. I have no illusions that the marriage is repaired, but that last scene by the pool suggests some kind of happiness, even if it’s a sad and resigned happiness (and, if the cancer has returned, as the doctors' office visit could be suggesting, a short happiness) was his.

 All of which makes that final moment, of Hank finally getting the clue needed to snap everything into place, so devastating. Not violent. At all. But devastating. I knew Walter White was going to fall. We all did, given that flash-forward. But we didn’t know he would win first. And now we are set up for a final eight episodes in which Walter White is found out and, presumably, 15 different varieties of hell break loose.

 Man I can’t wait.

 Until Whenever


Monday, September 03, 2012

I Can Name That Tune in One Chord

So, the Words with Friends enchantment having slightly worn off (I still play, and enjoy, it, but with a little less the level of endorphin-squirting excitement I had originally), my new smart phone game addiction is the achingly simple Name That Tune knock-off SongPop. The premise is as basic as they come - guess 5 songs in a selected genre (with the available genres able to be expanded the more you win) as quickly as possible. Send your times to your opponent and see if they can beat them. They then send you a round. And so on.

What I have found fascinating about this experience in just over a week of play is how easy it is to cross brain neurons in an attempt to be really quick on the trigger. The game is multiple choice, and in trying to choose the right answer in, in the best of all worlds, less than a second (my best stands at .7 seconds; not sure if I'll ever get that down more, dependent as it is on basic reaction times), it is very easy to make the wrong connection, only realizing its obvious wrongness too late.

So I'll hear something I know and hit the button for an artist I know, and only after hitting the button realize the wrongness of the choice. It can get pretty infuriating. Especially when you play people who seem to have better-behaved neurons.

My favorite moment from this first infatuation period was when I (finally) earned* enough coins to purchase the Movie Soundtrack genre I had been eyeing and then got as one clue "Theme from Jurassic Park," which I nailed with just one chord. That was cool.

Until Whenever

*You can also buy coins with actual, real money to get genres, but seriously? I wasn't about to spring for the full version**, you think I'm going to pay money to get more genres? Come on.

**I'm a little cheap sometimes.