Saturday, January 19, 2013

Idol Starts Season 12

I debated holding off talking about American Idol until all of TV was back, so I could do another roundup.  But I had a few friends ask me my thoughts, so, here they are.


To recap:


I started watching the show two years back only because my wife’s coworker was on the show.  Or rather, the coworker auditioned, and got in front of the judges, then didn’t go to Hollywood and wasn’t good or bad enough to go on the air.


I was ready to be done by the end of that episode.  The person lost, so, I had no horse in the race.  But my wife insisted that we trudge on.  So trudge we did.


Interestingly, I pegged the actual winner as flaming out in the middle twice over the last two years.  I’m not sure if it says more about me or America.


Over the years, of course, there have been 11 winners, and a variety of also-rans who have gone on to a measure of fame and fortune.  Interestingly, just making it into that upper echelon seems to be enough to launch a career.  Which I guess is nice.  But I had no real interest in any of the winners or losers.  Even the most popular of them all, Kelly, only had a couple of singles that really interested me.




Along came Phillip.  Well, kind of.  Along came Phillip, and someone had the bright idea to stick a bunch of excerpts from his album online, and I listened to them and kind of dug it.  Plus I had a long road trip coming up and needed something to listen to.  So I bought it.


What to say?


Well, I guess we can start with the title: The World From The Side Of The Moon. That’s a mouthful, and I can never remember it.  Also mostly a blank are the song titles, with the exception of Home.


Having read a dozen critical takes on it before picking it up, I have to agree with the general assessment.  It sounds a lot like Dave Matthews, which isn’t a bad thing.  And aside from Home, there are a few song which are almost painfully catchy, and there’s no harm there, either.  In particular, I enjoy Gone, Gone, Gone, Get Up Get Down, and Where We Came From.  And the rest of the CD is inoffensive, though kind of forgettable.  Even now, I couldn’t sing any of the other tunes for you.


Oh.  And if you buy it at Target, he’s got a version of Thriller on there, which ain’t bad.  I kind of liked his live, one-man-and-a-guitar take from his audition more, but it’s got a fun country-rock vibe. 


Ultimately, I give him credit, as he wrote a bunch of the songs on the album, and none of them are terrible.  My real curiosity, I suppose is how well he’ll sell and what he’ll do on the second go-around.  Like most artists who get their first album out, he has now run through all of his A songs and will have to either start from scratch or bring out the B team.  And judging from this release, I have a hard time imagining that the B team is where all the really brilliant songs are tucked away.


But I was talking about the new season of Idol.


Two judges dropped out.  Jennifer managed to give her career a nice later-period revival, I think.  At the very least, she sold some records, did some dancing, and got another TV show out of it.  So I’d argue it was a win for her.


Steven, on the other hand, confessed that he took the job for the money, and then got his band back together.  His album kind of flopped, but I’m guessing the concert tour probably did well and some monetary coffers were filled.  Plus he had that terrible memoir, which sold well. 


Randy was supposed to be out of the show, but then wasn’t.  I’m not sure why.  I guess the producers thought they don’t want to lose the Randy fans?  Assuming there are Randy fans?


I’m not knocking the dude.  I just don’t know.  Nobody ever seems to come on the show just to tell Randy that he’s been an inspiration to them.  Or maybe we just don’t see those guys.


But anyway, he’s back on this year.  And we’ve also got Keith Urban.  For whatever reason.  You can tell he’s Australian, because he comes off as the nicest man on the planet.  I’ve been to Australia, and I can honestly say I never met anyone who wasn’t incredibly nice.  Almost eerily so.  And that about sums up Keith.


Randy is Randy, I guess.  He seems to have gotten more bitter over the last couple of years. Maybe having Simon gone forced him into the bad cop role.  Or perhaps it’s the show.  Because they seem to be sending more terrible singers down to the judges, as if there weren’t another hundred very good singers they couldn’t send down.


Which I guess brings us to the big stars.


Mariah Carey in, much to my surprise, coming up on her silver anniversary of fame.  Vision of Love, her first big hit, came out in 1990, which means that one year from now she’ll have racked up 25 years of hitmaking.


Which explain why every woman through the door gets to say, “I grew up with you.”  They did.  Even at the oldest age you can hit and be on Idol, you were maybe three when Mariah hit the scene.


And… what to say about her?  Well, outside of her so-called feud with Nicki Minaj, she’s a bit of a tough nut to crack.  They threw a lot of money her way to be here, and I suspect that a big part of the reason she took it is because the albums are finally starting to peter out.  Her last couple of releases barely scraped platinum, which isn’t really acceptable when you’re supposed to be a huge star.  And while I hate to say it, the stiffness in her face and her lineless forehead seem to indicate that she’s been getting at least Botox, if not more work done.


And that makes me sad.  It’s clear she’s an influence, it’s clear that she’s an important part of music history, but that doesn’t seem to be enough for her.  She’s also trying to maintain herself as a picture of youth, even though she’s in her forties and a mom now. 


It’s sad, because she seems to have a sweetness about her when it comes to certain contestants.  I can tell she wants to be kinder, but she’s prevented from doing so.


Mostly by Nicki Minaj.




What to say?  Nicki was clearly brought on to bring in the kids.  She’s had the biggest hits of the last five years or so, and she is, yes, part of the now.  She also raps, but that’s neither here nor there, seeing as how Simon didn’t sing and Ellen didn’t do anything musical at all.


With all that said, in the promos, she was walking off the stage and saying she was done as of next week, and you know what?  That’d be AWESOME.


Nicki might be a great human being in real life, but on the show she’s combative and not at all fun.  Is it for the cameras?  Is it to bring in ratings?  Is it because she has a massive ego?


I just don’t care.


Fights about talent I can handle.  Fights about contestants, and who should be on?  Okay.  At least it would indicate that Nicki wants the show to be better, or that she favors a certain kind of music.


What I’m getting from the show is that she’s an unpleasant person, and that isn’t fun to watch. 


The problem is, I don’t see the problem correcting itself.  Nicki is clearly in for the long haul, and that’s kind of a shame.  Because right now she’s adding nothing to the show, and I sort of wish I could just abandon it.  And I may yet do so.

Monday, January 14, 2013

A Cappella Gives Me the Blues

It’s weird.


Folks my age (36) get stuck in ruts.  That’s just kind of a fact.  We’ve heard the music we like, we know “our” kinds of movies, and, you know, we pretty much want more of the same.


Much the way people the generation above me go out and buy new Paul Simon albums, I go out and get the new Ben Folds.


And there are things that are even more distressing than realizing you’ve only discovered, say, two new musical artists you like over the last year.  Like when I sat down last night at the piano, and I was playing a song I really love, and then I realized the song is 21 years old.


The song is old enough to drink.


It is, in fact, probably old enough to be on the “Classic” rock stations.  Much the way the music of my very young childhood is slowly creeping onto the local oldies station.




So of course there’s something to seeking out the pleasures of your younger life.  You get to pretend that song you like isn’t 21 years old.


Lately, though, one of the things I kind of dug 21 years ago is now slowly creeping back into my life by no fault of my own.  A Cappella music.  Or, perhaps more specifically, Rock-Appella music.


(MS Word is puking on itself over that one.  I’ll try to avoid using it again.)


What I’m getting at here, kinda, is the idea of hipsterism, wherein the thing that you liked that no one else had heard of suddenly becomes a THING, and you find yourself going, “Wait, since when do OTHER people know about this?”


So let’s go back to not-quite-20-years-ago.  I was in college, and the one thing you should know about college is that your college is constantly throwing free stuff at you.  This is because they have the justify how much it costs you to go to college for four years, despite the fact that you could probably pack the same information into one or two years of schooling if they didn’t make you take a bunch of credits outside your major.


But that’s my advice to you, if you’re in college.  Go see everything.  If it’s cheap or free, go.  If it sucks, leave.  You’ll be out, like, two dollars.


So one of the free things I saw was a little A Cappella group that called itself Blind Man’s Bluff.  It was four guys and a drum machine, and they prided themselves on the fact that they did something unusual: Pop songs.


I’m not talking about, say, 1950s doo-wop, or quiet ballads, or whatever.  They worked up an arrangement of Under the Bridge by The Red Hot Chili Peppers, for example.


And this is the thing: at the time that was kind of a big deal.


I’ll grant you, they weren’t the only guys doing it (I’ll come back to that in a bit) but they were certainly early adopters.  The guys who started buying Blu Ray discs when everyone else was still sticking to DVDs.


More to the point, they captured that sound on a disc.  They released their first CD when I was in college, and in fact our college was the first place that you could buy one of them.  Remember, this is more than a decade before iTunes would mean that you could buy their music WHILE watching their show.


I still have that CD.  I pull it out once in a while.  Overall, there’s a lot to like about it.  Five guys can be a little thing on the ground, performance-wise, and the drum machine sounds fakey.  But their version of the Indigo Girls song Galileo is probably my favorite.


They even have a solid original song on there, called Chase the Dream.  I once wrote a movie with that title, and I thought it would be awesome to have that song under the end credits.


Of course, by the time I wrote it, the band was mostly dead.


Google was still a pretty primitive thing back then, but I got an email from a friend the year after I graduated.  The band had already lost two members, gained a new one, and the show wasn’t quite as good.  I hunted for them online at the time and couldn’t find any other information.  Today, a search shows that they made four CDs before disbanding forever.


The second time I saw them in concert, an on-campus A Cappella group had sprung up, and opened for them.  That was my first real taste of collegiate A Cappella.


It wasn’t bad.  But it wasn’t one that had experienced the A Cappella revolution.


Hold that word in your brain as we zip forward in time.  Somewhere in the middle of the fast-forward, there’s a short pause for The Gilmore Girls, which made a joke about collegiate A Cappella.  And a slightly longer pause for Scrubs, which had an A Cappella band.


Which was, and is, kind of a real band.  They’re called The Blanks.  They made me happy every time I saw them, for reasons I couldn’t quite explain.  Though I figured it out.


Glee added an A Cappella band to their roster: The Warblers, who became so strangely popular, they’re the only Glee band to get their own release.  Think about it.  There’s no “Best of Rachel,” but there’s a whole CD of Pop-Appella.  (Once again, I’m sorry.)


I loved that CD.  Loved it.


Then we bump up against last year.  The Sing Off. 


I don’t know that there’s much to say about it that I haven’t already said elsewhere and at length.  It was the third season, and as it turns out, it was also the final season.


Bands came out and performed, and while none of them were bad, it was a truly mixed bag.  The prize was, supposedly, a bunch of money and a recording deal, but I could see that the real prize was being on TV, starting with the first episode.


How could I tell?  A lot of the groups were people returning for a second shot, often with a new band.  Some bands were newly formed, a few weeks or months old.  Several of the groups were collegiate A Cappella bands… groups with rotating casts, at best.


And there were a few bands who… how to describe it?  They were professional A Cappella groups.  It’s what they DID.  It was like having Justin Bieber audition for American Idol.  It just didn’t make any sense.


Which I guess tells you how desperate they were for contestants.


The thing of it was, I could tell out of the gate who deserved to win.  Pentatonix. They came out and performed ET, which was an actual on-the-charts song.  And they didn’t make it all A Cappella-y.  They did not adapt it for five voices.  They adapted their voices to perform the song the way it sounded on the radio.


I spent weeks listening to it, tearing it apart in my head, trying to work out how they did it.


When they won, it wasn’t  a shock. The top two was them, and a collegiate group.  And the head of that group said, out loud, on TV, “I never really thought about a career in music.”


Well then, my friend, why in the world are you missing school to be on a musical TV show? 


Therein lay the charm of Pentatonix.  They were an actual band, and they were trying to perform actual music they way music is played today.  Remxied.  Mashed up.  With the bass and drums cranked up to the point where you can barely hear the melody.


Even more interesting, to me, was the fact that they won a record deal, which they then turned down to release their own EP.


Yes.  They actively ran away from a major label.  And now they’re on tour, and it seems like they’re doing pretty well. 


Their releases were probably my biggest happy of last year, five voices doing super-fun acrobatics, and to be honest there’s a certain “Best of” quality to their releases.


It was when their EP was released that I realized for the first time what makes A Cappella so fun.  It’s stuff you ALREADY LIKE.  And then you add in SOMETHING I LIKE DOING.


I liked being in college, and hanging out with people, and then with just the parts of our body that God gave us, we’d make really fun music.  Often arranged on the fly.  With harmonies and solos and just plain fun.


I heard there was a movie called Pitch Perfect coming out, and that it was about collegiate A Cappella.  It made sense.  I figured it was probably greenlit during the seven seconds it looked like A Cappella might become a thing.


And then… then I found out it was based on a book.


The book is a bit like Moby Dick, in that half of it is story.  It follows three college groups doing… stuff.  One is trying to recover from losing a bunch of members.  One is trying to make a new CD.  And one… I don’t even remember.  That’s how low-stakes it is.


The other parts talk about the history of A Cappella music in colleges.  Some of the details are great, like the story of the first guy to go, “We should sing the GUITAR part.”  Which is obvious, but someone had to be that guy.


Often, however, it’s depressing, because you realize these people are busting tail trying to put on these great performances… for no one.


The bestselling A Cappella CDs sell, no lie, a thousand copies.  Which is what makes the book funny, or horribly depressing.  These people are killing themselves to be the best at something that no one cares about, to be the top of the pile that no one remembers.


The movie, of course, doesn’t mention that.  It pulls the idea of a female group trying to recover after losing a bunch of members, and made a pretty standard, though very funny movie out of it.


People wondered why the judges in the movie were making fun of the singers as they performed, and I think that’s your answer: to keep the audience from doing it.


Because who cares?


Because who, besides me, still owns a Blind Man’s Bluff CD 15 years later?


I bought the Pitch Perfect soundtrack, and it is both glorious and sad.  The movie is nearly 1 hour and 50 minutes long, and the movie has about 30 minutes of music in it. 


And I sit, and I wonder how much longer this happy little bubble can survive.


The movie was a hit, and the soundtrack is selling well, and that’s nice, I guess.  But the happy of A Cappella is, I think, built on top of the happy of hit songs performed in a fun way.  It isn’t original.  It doesn’t change the world.


It is, mostly, about being a great wedding band: able to perform the hits.


I have seen the enemy nostalgia, and it is reminding me that I am older now, and my brief little happy flickers and feels the cold hand of despair.




Guess I’ll go listen to No Diggity again.  There are probably a couple solid hits of happy in there somewhere.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Stuff I Liked in 2012

I’ve been feeling a little down, lately.


I could talk about what’s going on, but to summarize it all life has been busy lately, the holidays have sapped some of my emotional energy, and I’m having some other issues I don’t feel entirely comfortable dealing with in the blog format.


Subsequently, I’ve barely written anything over the last few months.  I’ve managed to power through some editing to get my work ready for Red Iris Books, but otherwise, creating actual new words has eluded me.


A lot of times, diving into other people’s stories through the world of TV, movies, and/or books can help me to recharge.  For that matter, as I’ve constantly babbled about, the Blood Calling books were written mostly based on the frisson that came from listening to Cobra Starship CDs.


But lately, I haven’t found a whole lot to love.  And with the new year suddenly popping up, I found myself looking back over the year and having to work incredibly hard to remember if there was anything I had just flat-out loved this last year, with no qualifications.


And for like a week, I couldn’t think of anything.


And I do mean anything.  My mind was a complete blank.  I even started writing a blog post about the TV I’ve been watching, except that turned into another rant about how Glee still can’t seem to get it together, and how I think the New York storylines are yet another excuse to talk about how Rachel is so great, and how the cast who graduated should really just go ahead and look for work on other TV shows now, because it’s time.


There was a whole thing about how Revolution just keeps failing to get great, keeps giving us just-okay episodes that end with amazing twists… so I keep coming back, even though I’m not in love with it. 


I tried to write a review of The Dresden Files: Cold Days, talking about how it was okay, but Jim Butcher keeps taking more time to write longer books that aren’t as good as the previous entries in the series, and how that tires me and disappoints me.


And I finally managed to finish This Book is Full of Spiders, the sequel to John Dies at the End.  That took me eight weeks, and I only managed it because it was overdue at the library and I wanted to minimize the fine.


You have to understand, I didn’t/don’t really hate any of the things I’m whining about here.  If I were in a better mood, I probably would have enjoyed them a bit more than I did.


Or maybe not.


And really, that’s the issue right there.  I’m looking for a serious happy, and I’m not getting one.


So I went back again and tried to remember what brought me joy. 


So here’s that list:






At this point, very few shows I watch are a must-see as soon as I have them in my hands, but this is one of them.  If there’s an Emmy for most improved show EVER, the folks behind this show deserve it.  Epic drama, freaky action, and lots and lots and lots of fun surprises.  I’m just sad this next season will be the last.


Game of Thrones:


Y’know, this one comes up against its budget every once in a while, and it’s got a huge one.  Of course, they’re shooting 10 hour movies for half the price of a 3 hour Lord of the Rings flick, ten years down the road, so that’s understandable.


But every week that hour goes by in a blink.  My wife’s most frequent exclamation at the end of an episode is, “What do you mean, that’s it?”


I will say that George RR Martin needs to get a move on and get the novels done.  That needs to happen, like, right now. 


But otherwise, I take a lot of joy out of this one.


Warehouse 13


Man, I remember when this one as just a pleasant diversion.  Now it’s a must-watch-NOW, and every week delivers.


I suspect that time will eventually erode Warehouse, and I can’t see myself ever going back to it once it’s over, as I probably will with, say, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But man, what a pleasure, and I’m dying to see how they’re going to bring it back and wrap up the season.


Parks and Recreation:


The thing of it is, this show is on Thursday, and I just don’t have the time to watch it.  So my wife and I shove it off to the summer, and then DEVOUR it in June.  Which is why I forget about it.


And yet, for those two weeks we’re catching up, I laugh so very much.  Absolute gem of a show. 




This one I remembered because they now release the half seasons around my birthday, and then around Christmas.  So I buy them, and we save them for those special occasions… and then we BURN through them.


I’ve said before that the show keeps getting more soapy, but I honestly don’t care.  The show is soapy, yes but it’s soapy in a way that involves research, and hard answers to real questions (at least most of the time).


And unlike Glee, when a cast member leaves they generally stay gone.


Being Human (UK)


I had heard that the newest season (four) was pretty rough, especially with the loss of three major cast members.  And when my wife and I finally saw the first episode, my fears were confirmed.  Literally months went by while we watched other things.


But when we went back to it, the show smoothed itself out.  Ultimately, I think the problem was that the show had to almost completely reboot itself, while feeding off the end of the third season, and it couldn’t do it without a massive amount of storytelling.


Here in the US, where they’d get 13 or 22 episodes, they could have spread it out and made it work. But with only eight episodes to use, I think the job just got too big, and they figured they’d shove all the awkward into the first episode in order to make the other ones more polished.


Or maybe I’m wrong.  Either way, that’s how it worked.  And once it got going, it was just fine, had a killer (literally) final rug pull, and I’ve found that I really adore the new cast members.  Here’s hoping the next season is as good…






Ben Folds Five


Ben Folds put out a retrospective last year, and his band tossed a new album at us this year.  The retrospective mostly reminded me how much I’ve always liked Ben.  I think the problem is that if you don’t hear something for a long time you forget how good it is.  As it was, I ran across a half-dozen songs I already owned and had forgotten how much I loved.


And the new disc reminded me of something else entirely: Ben Folds Five was a real band, with its own sound, one that Ben himself never quite replicated.  So if the songs never quite crested the heights of the early records, there was wonder in there if you really looked for it.


Plus they did a video with the Fraggles.  A little happy right there.




This year we got two EPs from Pentatonix, and I loved them both.  The original songs aren’t as wonderful as the covers, maybe, but the sheer beauty of the vocal gymnastics on display gives me goose bumps. 


My favorite tracks, interestingly enough, came from their Christmas album, which had a version of O Come O Come Emmanuel that was beautiful and kind of terrifying.  And then there was The Christmas Song, with a “trumpet” solo by the beatboxer.


So good.




The Avengers/Cabin in the Woods


Five years ago, if you had told me Joss Whedon would have not just one, but TWO movies in theaters in the same year, I would have said you were crazy.


And if you had told me that they would both be great, and that one of them would be the biggest moneymaker of the summer?  And the third-highest-grossing movie in history?


As I told my friend: So, are we finally able to stop calling Whedon a cult phenomenon?  Because his movie made over a billion dollars…


And Cabin in the Woods?  The horror movies that mocks horror movie conventions, while still using them?  The movie that has the most insane final 20 minutes I’ve seen in a theater possibly ever?  (Oh.  Outside of Crank 2.  Which was CRAZY.)


It was a movie made for people like me.  It’s not often that I get one of those in theaters, as opposed on video when no one is looking…


Pitch Perfect:


When I was trying to compile a list o’ things I loved this year, this was, for a while, the only movie I could think of.  It’s a little overlong, but the script is covered in memorable one-liners, the actresses are all on their absolute A game, and watching a bunch of college kids making music just for the love of making music?


This one was made for me, too.


Also: Anna Kendrick.  Can we just put her in everything?  Such a good actress, such a great voice.




John Green: The Collected Works


A student of mine took to her blog to talk about how she was a huge fan of John Green, and in particular his newest book The Fault in Our Stars.


I picked up Fault, read it, and dug it enough to backfill all of John’s other novels.


John seems like a fine fellow, and he works hard to make his YA novels bounce past the clichés of YA.  The only problem is that they tend to land in the clichés of indie film because of that.


No matter.  The guy clearly loves language, loves his characters, and loves putting his stories into oddball but still mostly believable situations.


And I must go back to the fact that I chewed through all of his books in about two months, which I haven’t done since I discovered Rob Thomas. 


While I love Rob Thomas, he never managed to write a scene where someone takes a knee to the groin in a way I would describe as “poetic.”


Brendan Halpin: Tessa Masterson Will Go To Prom


Yeah, he wrote it with someone else, but my only real complaint about this book is that I can never remember the title.  (I keep calling her Tess.)


Look, it’s a book about a lesbian that wants to go to prom in a town that hates the idea of it happening.  If you’re not into the idea, it won’t work for you.


But looking back on reading it, I think this is the John Hughes movie that John never lived to write and direct.  And unlike John Green’s books, which seem to go out of their way to have more ambiguous endings, this one ties up pretty neatly.


I am, quite frankly, shocked that someone hasn’t kicked 5 million into it and turned it into an indie flick starring a couple of former Disney channel stars looking to branch out.


Or maybe I’m cynical.


Which, hey, loops me right around.


There was other stuff I dug, too.  But I’m at 1900 words.  1900 words of happy.  Well, probably more like 400 of whining and 1500 of happy, but that’s pretty good, right?  More than 75%!