Friday, March 22, 2013

What I'm Watching: Two Months to Go


NBC fascinates me.

 

If you don’t know already, they started the year at the top of the pile of the big four (NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox).  Granted, it was by a narrow margin, and it was mostly due to two shows: The Voice and Revolution.

 

Both of those shows went off the air in November.

 

And NBC?  It dropped to FIFTH place.  Behind Univision, which wasn’t even in the running.

 

And the truth of it is, they can’t staunch the flow of viewers as they slip-slide away.  The Office is ending this year.  30 Rock put up terrible numbers and also ended.  Smash came back and didn’t just tank, it taaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaanked.

 

On one particularly bad night, a couple of their shows got eclipsed by the CW. 

 

(The CW is a whole ‘nother thing.  I don’t really know how they stay on the air at this point.  I mean, I can guess.  They keep their prices down, they produce most of their material in-house, so they can monetize it on iTunes and online and on DVD, and they probably keep most of the money from syndication as well…

 

(But yeah.  I don’t worry about the shows I like getting cancelled.  I worry about the channel coming to an end.)

 

How desperate is NBC?  They’re planning to UN-cancel The Sing-Off, most likely because the ratings, though terrible, are better than a lot of their current running programs.

 

(Another aside: They’re also going to get rid of Jay Leno, who has won his time slot almost continually for 21 years straight, to bring in someone younger.  Because that worked SO well last time?  It is the equivalent of having nine bad horses and one champion horse… and then shooting that horse in the face.)

 

At any rate, next week, their big bad voodoo shows are back.  The Voice is returning.  And Revolution is about to make a (triumphant?) return.

 

Of course, there are flaws in the plan.  Running The Voice twice a year just sounds like a terrible idea.  While it brings in eyeballs (or has, anyway) the three winners so far have made almost no splash in the actual music industry.  They probably would have gotten just as close to a having a record coming out if they’d won The Price is Right.

 

Eventually, saturation is going to set in, and it’s going to be sooner rather than later.

 

Revolution:

 

And then there’s Revolution, which has been off the air since November.  Nearly four months have gone by since anyone saw it.  There are no DVDs available.  You can pick up the show in Amazon and I’m guessing on iTunes, but it’ll cost you $30 to catch it in HD.

 

And I just learned that they cut the season order from 22 episodes to 20… probably because they realized that they want it to line up with The Voice EXACTLY in a desperate attempt to keep the show afloat.

 

In other words, even NBC doesn’t trust one of its biggest hits.

 

You want the truth?  NBC is scrambling at this point to hold onto anything that’s going to fill time.  They’ve got shows dropping off left and right, and sooner or later they’re going to have to choose to hold a line and try to rebuild.

 

On that level, however, I think they’re pretty much done now.  The Voice/Revolution combo might be a one-two punch, but it’s one that’s going to lose steam quickly.

 

They need to start building for next year, and they need to do it now. 

 

More on this further down the path.

 

American Idol:

 

I always forget that Idol has patches where they throw you six hours of programming a week, which is insane. 

 

I made my predictions, and then Idol did something fascinating, and told you where most of the contestants fell on the spectrum.  And Lazaro was number four.

 

Ugh.  Look, I don’t want to pick on the guy.  I suspect he’s dealt with that his whole life, and I understand that.  And I think he has a nice voice.  But he is in no way deserving of fourth place, which means he’s either getting a massive boost from Vote for the Worst, or people are responding to his sob story, and either way, something is borked about the show.

 

Especially if Amber, who really seems like she could be the next Whitney Houston, is sitting at number five.  (And then this week, is falling to the bottom three.)

 

If anyone was asking me (they ain’t) my biggest admonition to the performers would be to never, ever, ever, ever get out of your comfort zone.  Scotty spent the entire season singing country and won.  Phillip spent the entire season singing like Dave Matthews and won.

 

Do what you do, play it as safe as possible, win.  That seems to be the formula.

 

Hoo, mama, it’s going to be a brutal year. 

 

Modern Family:

 

Still funny.  I still expect the show to run for ten years, after which the kids can retire and never work again.  If only we all had that option in life.

 

Supernatural:

 

I said last time I did one of these that I’d totally watch a Men of Letters show. 

 

You know what?  I think we’re watching it now.  And it’s a GREAT show.  It is, I think, getting near season three levels of greatness, and I’ve gone from liking the show a lot to loving the show again.  Because I know that each week it’s going to be a little scary, a lot funny, and a great way to kill an hour.

 

Bravo guys and girls of Supernatural.  You really accomplished something – making an eight-year-old show totally vital and fun.

 

The Vampire Diaries:

 

Recently, my wife hasn’t been as into the show, but when I press her about why, she really doesn’t seem to be able to pinpoint it.  Well, maybe a little.  The show is/was, at first anyway, about a girl and two brothers, and unfortunately the girl at the center of the show is, most weeks, the worst part of it.  This is not the fault of the actress, who is flat-out great, but because her character undergoes SO much drama that she spends most of her episodes either sad, angry, or mean.  She’s been more “fun” these last couple of weeks mostly by becoming completely amoral, which is the kind of thing that gets tiring quickly.

 

But if I had to guess what my wife’s primary aggravation is, it’s probably fatigue. 

 

It’s a fast show, it’s ALWAYS been a fast show, and even now it’s still trying to push along at Mach 6, and it can’t quite get there.  The seams show sometimes.  The character work gets a little sketchy.  (See above, re: main female character.)

 

The show is going an interesting place now, with an ancient being and a single dose of a “cure” for vampirism.  The show is trying to up the stakes (ahem) more and more, but…

 

I can really only see one way out of what they’re doing.  There’s talk of bringing back the dead, which would include all of the good people and bad people who haven’t totally moved on.

 

This would turn the show into more of a spin-off of itself, as the primary cast works to fight off all the suddenly-raised bad guys. 

 

I can’t say that’s my favorite idea, but it would take the show into a new place at the time when it kind of needs to go to one. 

 

We shall see how it plays out.

 

Community:

 

Here we must talk about NBC again.  Community was always kind of half-dead show, shunted to Friday until they decided to mid-season it.

 

And the ratings haven’t been great.  There was a solid drop, a slight uptick, a big uptick, and now it looks like it’s gone down a bit again.

 

But there’s nothing else to take it’s place.

 

1600 Penn is dying.  The Office and 30 Rock are over at the end of this season.  NBC has to build something, and they need to do it now.

 

So… I still think Community has a shot at one more season.

 

And I’m good with that.  I got down on the first episode of the new season for not quite “getting” the show, but since then it’s shaken out the cobwebs and started offering episodes that feel like Community in its normal groove.

 

It’s imperfect, but it’s also a show in its fourth season.  This was probably inevitable no matter who held the reins.

 

Great?  By no means.  But there’s a whole LOT of good, and that’s enough for me.

 

The Big Bang Theory

 

I keep saying this show is just okay, and in some sense that’s not fair.  This last week brought us an episode about Howard and how his dad ran away.

 

What it demonstrated is that the cast can really bring A+ performances when the material warrants it.  And it showed that the writers can do more than make nerd jokes.

 

So good job guys.  My only request is that you remember you can do that.  Thanks.

 

Glee:

 

*sigh*

 

I might have told this story before, but I need to tell it again.

 

A few months ago I went on YouTube and pulled up Don’t Stop Believin’, as performed on the pilot episode of Glee.

 

There were, and are, so many things to talk about from those three or four minutes.  Placed up against the episode from last week, they don’t even seem like the same show anymore.

 

I mean, consider the characters: Finn, Rachel, Artie(!), Tina(!), Mercedes(!).  The cheerleaders who eventually became part of Glee were still mostly random mean girls.

 

Sue actually kind of made sense.  Will was a sad sack with a confusing life instead of… whatever he is now.  Some guy who seems to have no adult friends, who did something in Washington, I guess.  Who…

 

You know what?  I just dunno, man.

 

Equally ridiculous are the now-constant attempts to explain why people aren’t there from episode to episode.  The obvious real-life answer is, of course, they can’t afford that much cast.  But, ugh.  This is a problem that stems from a fixable issue.

 

Namely: It’s time to cut some dead wood.

 

Like, say, all the kids who graduated and moved on and finished their emotional arc pretty well and correctly and fairly.

 

But you know what?  Let’s take a minute and talk about what I do like about Glee:

 

I occasionally still enjoy the musical numbers.  I’d guess about half.  My primary complaint is that I feel like they take fewer and fewer chances with their choices, often just remaking music videos and giving us the exact same song we heard on the radio, but with different voices.

 

On the other hand, once the show is off the air, I don’t know where I’m going to hear whatever is sitting at the top of the musical charts these days.  So I’ll let that at least partially go.

 

I think I’m the only one, but while I don’t like Jake all that much by himself, I do like him with Marley and I do like him with Puck. 

 

Surprisingly, I also kind of like Kitty with Puck.  It’s random and odd, but they have a surprising chemistry.

 

Not sure what to make of that, really.

 

What else do I care about?  The Unique storyline seems to be trying very hard to go somewhere, and it might yet make it.  Sadly, Degrassi is doing something similar and making Glee look stupid.

 

I do kind of like the whole Sam/Blaine friendship.  Actually, I’ve gotten to really like Sam in general.  He’s sort of becoming The Fonz of the show, inasmuch as he can be sprinkled nicely through the show and raise the entertainment bar by 16%.

 

Otherwise?

 

They gotta wipe the cast.  All the old students need to go.  New York needs to go.  If they want to cameo one of the oldies from time to time, okay, but no more than one visit per person per season.

 

There’s talk of a season five now, and in my darkest hour I must admit I will watch it.  I’ll watch until the end. 

 

But when I watch Don’t Stop again, I’ll feel a little sad that we’re never gonna get back to those innocent, carefree days again.  When we thought we might get a Tina episode that didn’t suck.  When Rachel Berry was totally obnoxious but more fun because she didn’t get what she wants all the time, whether it’s a boyfriend or to not be knocked up or to get into the school of her dreams.

 

You know, maybe that’s what bugs me – the fact that the show is trying to “very special snowflake” these characters.

 

As a high school student, one of the things that really stuck with me was the woman who came back to speak at a “what to expect in college” seminar.  She flat-out said that one of the hardest things to deal with was how you went from being the star, and from being important, to being the very, very, very small fish.

 

I think there’s a great story in that idea.  What if Rachel got to school and discovered that everyone WAS better than her?  What if she didn’t get into the school at all?  There’s a much more interesting dramatic show in our “big three” trapped at home and trying to figure out their next move, realizing that high school is genuinely over.

 

They kinda-sorta did it with Finn, until the show let him off the hook and put him in charge of the Glee club.

 

Heck, we even know there’s a local community theater on the show, why not get them involved in that, and have them try to work out what they’re really going to do with their lives?  I would have even been fine with Rachel eventually getting into her big, fancy, school, but mostly I want her to fail for a while.

 

Yeah, yeah.  I know.  None of that is going to happen.  Such is life.

 

Spartacus:

 

I went on and on about how sad I will be when this is gone, and how much sadder I will be if this show doesn’t eventually grab and keep an ever-expanding audience. 

 

Suffice to say, if you’re not overly averse to adult situations and graphic violence, it’s a brilliant, brilliant show. 

 

We’re only a week and change from April now, and soon shows will start to slip off the air.  Spartacus only has three episodes to go, which clears the path for us to watch Game of Thrones.  Walking Dead only has a couple more week to kill (hah!) and then we’ll be into May, and it will finally be time to watch all the Bunheads and Parks and Recreation episodes I’ve been hoarding.

 

Who knows?  Maybe we’ll finally finish watching Lost this summer…

 

 

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Kickstarter, Veronica Mars, and The Future


So as I sit here typing, this is happening:

 

http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/559914737/the-veronica-mars-movie-project

 

At the moment, they’ve raised 1.3 million dollars out of 2 million dollars needed.  (Note: I started writing this yesterday.  It’s actually around 2.6 million dollars now, which means it’s fully funded and THERE WILL BE MORE VERONICA MARS I AM SO HAPPY.)

 

If you didn’t click the link, then maybe you don’t know that I’m talking about Veronica Mars.

 

Look.  There aren’t many things I’ll support.  When my internet friend who happens to be one of my favorite authors, Brendan Halpin, did a Kickstarter to fund his next book, I kicked in.

 

I will kick in for him.  I know his book is going to be worth it.  I am dying to read it.

 

And this… this is Veronica Mars. This is something that I finally really gave up on, because the whole cast of Veronica Mars wanted to come back, and when the show was cancelled it went out on a cliffhanger, and the fans sent a ton of Mars Bars to Warner Brothers demanding that it get another season.

 

This is one of those things that Could Change Everything, as the saying goes.

 

But let me back up.

 

How devoted to Veronica Mars was I?  When WB and UPN became CW, I swore that if they cancelled Veronica Mars I would never watch their channel again.

 

(This ended up being a filthy lie.  I blame Supernatural.  And The Vampire Diaries.  And almost 90210.  I’ll get back to that.)

 

Let’s back up further.

 

I kind of hate jumping on shows at the start.  This has a lot to do with Firefly, because I was there from day one, and no one else was, and then the next thing I knew the show was gone and nothing was resolved.

 

Eventually, of course, I got Serenity, but it wasn’t quite the same.  After all, it meant compressing several seasons of TV into two hours.  It would be like making The Lord of the Rings into a 1 hour and 45 minute film.  You can do it, but it would never be the same animal.

 

So when I heard a few good things about Veronica Mars (Buffy minus Vampires plus Nancy Drew!) I didn’t bother to check into it.

 

But then, as some shows do (The Wire, Spartacus Buffy) the hype kept growing.  The people watching it went from viewers to LOVERS, people who couldn’t wait for the next hour, who talked about minute details, who quoted the show at each other.

 

And of course, the first season has a big mystery, and there was no way to catch up.

 

And I thought it might be cancelled anyway… but then it wasn’t.

 

No.  It got a second season.  And a season-one box set.  Which was released by boneheads after the second season started. 

 

This was before Hulu.  Before iTunes and Amazon and the CW sticking everything they have online and monetizing it was a thing.  If you missed something, it was just gone, mostly.

 

I mean, really.  I was recording episodes of the show using a VCR.  That’s where we were at.

 

But record them I did.  And I bought the box set.  And my wife and I took it with us when we went on a little pre-child second-ish type honeymoon, and when we were hanging out in the room and otherwise unoccupied, we TORE through the set, and it was SO much fun.

 

We finished the first season in a week.  Then we started watching the tapes and loaning out the set.

 

The first season ends with a mystery: Who is at the door?  We’d loan people the show, and they’d call us when they finished the episode and ask us WHO WAS AT THE DOOR because they had to know NOW.

 

We had to loan out the videotapes.  And eventually we caught up and it was hard because now we had to wait a week, or many weeks, to find out what was happening next.

 

And man… that season two ending.  When everything you know turns out to be wrong.  Blew my mind.  Blew it.

 

People rag on season three, but that wasn’t the fault of those making it.  The people with the money (CW) said they wanted shorter mysteries, and a bit of a reboot, just to let new people on board.

 

Then they took away some of their episodes.

 

Then they cancelled the show.  On a cliffhanger.

 

If the show was on today, with the numbers it was cancelled with, it would be higher rated than any two shows on the CW combined.

 

But that was then.  And for the record, I liked season three.  It wasn’t as good as the previous two season, but it was a lot better than much of what was on the air at the time.

 

There was talk of the comic.  I started seeking out Rob Thomas’ young adult novels as a sort of Mars methadone.  I did not send Mars bars, because why bother?

 

No.  I sat, and I waited.  I bought the rest of the box set, and loaned them to people, and tried to comfort them when they got to the last episode and went, “That’s it?”

 

Because, yeah, that was it. 

 

But now it’s not going to be anymore.

 

There has been talk, some of it angry, that it is not the fans’ job to put money directly into the pockets of someone like Time Warner.  That we will pay for this thing, and then a major corporation will ultimately reap the benefits.

 

I can see that side of it.

 

But I also recognize that it’s short-sighted.

 

The fact is, Time Warner claims (and perhaps it’s a lie) that it did “studies” that indicated making a Veronica Mars movie/TV show/whatever was always going to be a financial error.  For better or worse, they are in the business of making money, not losing it on really great projects.

 

Without fan money, this was never going to happen.  It just wasn’t.  And everyone was going to age, and soon this idea was going to be less and less appealing, and then… well, then the reasons to make the movie would vanish.

 

Will Warner Brother make a profit on this, in the end?  Probably.  But the fans are getting something, too.  They’re getting the movie they want.  Some of them are getting DVDs, or character names, or cameos, or videos from actors and/or actresses they’ve long enjoyed.

 

If you want to argue that Time Warner wins, because they get to make more money, well okay.

 

But really, we all win, because: MORE VERONICA MARS.

 

What really excites me about this is that it truly has the chance to change everything.  If Veronica Mars can raise 2 million dollars in a single day…

 

What if fans decided to pay for Doctor Horrible 2?

 

What if fans decided to back a few lost Joss Whedon scripts? 

 

Could there be enough fans and money to make another Firefly movie?

 

What about Phantasm V?  What about Bubba Nosferatu? 

 

What about another George Romero Dead movie?

 

Could we finally see a conclusion to Gilmore Girls that gives us the last four lines the creator swears she already knows?

 

Could Community get six seasons and a movie?

 

Could Pushing Daisies finally get a conclusion?

 

Movies, TV shows, books, music.  Does it matter if some corporation gets the back end if we, the audience, get what we want?

 

I really have no idea.  But in the meantime, MORE VERONICA MARS.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Michael Penn: Palms & Runes, Tarot & Tea: A Michael Penn Collection


So I guess it’s time to wrap this up with Palms & Runes, Tarot & Tea: A Michael Penn Collection.

 

That’s the title of Penn’s “last” record, released in 2007, which makes it six years old now.

 

The “Best of” collection can be a lot of things.  Sometimes a singer leaves one label and still owes them a record, so they put out a collection.  Sometimes a group has so many hits that the label just wants them all under one roof, which probably isn’t quite as important in an iTunes world.

 

Sometimes a musician vanishes off the face of the planet and their label just keeps tossing out whatever it’s got in a desperate attempt to make some money on their investment.

 

Of course, the really bothersome collections are the ones missing major songs.  Peter Gabriel put out 16 Golden Greats and left In Your Eyes, arguably his most-loved song, off the CD.

 

And on the other side of the equation, you have groups that put out odd little collections of also-ran songs.  Lost demos.  B sides for various singles.  Soundtrack songs.

 

And of course, most Best-of collections also have a new song or two, just to catch the eye of the fans and collectors.  Guys like me.

 

And yet…

 

Palms’ booklet contains a little essay with quotes from Michael himself, talking about how he tried to make the record into a unique listening experience.  There are no new songs on the collection (more on this in a second), though it does have a couple of instrumental tracks, one which comes from a score he wrote.

 

There’s a demo for Me Around which removes the crunch-filled guitars and instead gives us an acoustic and Michael’s voice, and while I miss the guitar solo at the center of the song, I actually like this stripped-down version a bit better than the original.

 

But… here’s where it gets weird.  Really weird.

 

Because like I said, there aren’t any new songs here, to lure dudes like myself into the fray.  No, instead, he decided to rerecord some of his songs and release them a second time.

 

And it’s utterly pointless.

 

The arrangements are, I suppose, slightly different.  Michael thinks at least one of them is an improvement.

 

I disagree.

 

Back in college I once read a magazine article about a place that bought songs.  They said if you had a great song, you could do a piano/voice demo and the song would sell.  A great song is a great song.  But if you had a just-okay song, you had to polish it until it was near-complete.  You had to show what the song COULD be.

 

Michael tackles none of his could-bes. He takes on Bunker Hill, which had a great arrangement.  He redoes Long Way Down, which was perfect in its original incarnation.  And he takes another stab at Cupid’s Got a Brand New Gun, which is a great song with a fine arrangement, and he doesn’t make it any better.

 

And that’s all she wrote.

 

There’s only one song from his previous record on this collection, which is Walter Reed.  The rest of his work is fairly well represented.  I do wonder why his work from Boogie Nights isn’t here at all, though I would guess it was a rights issue.

 

But really, the thing that ain’t here is what you usually look for on the Best of – the new songs.

 

That, to me, is what says that Michael Penn has really washed his hands of the rock business.

 

He’s a different guy now than when he started releasing records.  Back then, he was young and had great songs and not as many attachments.  Today he’s married and a parent.

 

And I’m a different guy too.

 

I think that’s what really saddens me when I listen to Palms.  He said he wanted to make a cohesive statement, but there’s nothing cohesive for me to hear.  His brilliant earlier stuff is stacked up against his later, not-as-great work.  The songs I can sing in my sleep are side-by-side with the songs that mean almost nothing to me.

 

My childhood is mixed with my adulthood.

 

In so many ways, Michael is like that old friend you have that slowly slips out of your life.  He meant so much, and then he meant less.

 

But when you think back on old times, there’s magic there.

 

I’m not sure what’s to become of Michael.  The TV show Girls just got a third season renewal, which means he has work for another year.  It’s been seven years since his last new record, and outside of movies and TV music he’s written exactly two songs that I know of.

 

If there was ever a fire in his belly to write songs, it appears to be missing now.

 

And I guess that’s okay.

 

It saddens me that there might never be another Michael Penn album, but it prevents me from having to buy it.  I mentioned Prince a couple of reviews ago, and how I picked up his latest work and felt a certain disappointment that it was and is so forgettable.

 

If Michael never releases anything else, I don’t have to judge it.  I don’t have to compare it to the still-perfect March.  I don’t have to feel guilt over the fact that I don’t like it.

 

And perhaps most importantly to me, I don’t have to feel a building excitement that the new record might be great, and then feel disappointed.

 

But like I do with most old friends, I just kinda hope that Michael is happy, making his music, hanging with his family, and knowing that he’s written a handful of great songs.

 

It’s more than a lot of us manage in life.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Michael Penn: Mr. Hollywood Jr., 1947


While trying to think about a way to frame my second-to-last essay on Michael Penn, I found myself thinking over and over about another musician: Bill Withers.

 

Bill is best known for the song Lean on Me, but if you run over to YouTube and type in his name, I suspect you’ll find one or two other songs you recognize.  He was never a massive seller but – at least if Wikipedia is accurate – he never sold more than Gold on any of his records, and then only three times.

 

And more importantly for this re-review, when he was done, he was done.  He dropped out of the music business in 1985, and never looked back.  Since then, someone did a documentary about him, and he pops up from time to time contributing songs to other people’s records, but he’s not putting a band together and hitting the festival circuit.  He’s not pulling a David Bowie and making a stealth album.

 

He said what he had to say, and now he’s done.

 

From what I understand, Bill could afford to do this.  His songs are on the radio, he still sells some records, and he’s being covered and sampled on a pretty regular basis. 

 

I think there’s a certain honor in realizing that you’ve said all that you have to say, throwing down the microphone and calling it a career.  Hundreds or thousands of terrible band reunions, tours and records might never have come into existence if people didn’t need the money.

 

Heck, go to Wikipedia and look up five or ten of your favorite eighties bands.  You thought they were broken up, and yet, if you poke a few of them you’ll find they’ve put out new records and hit the road.  Not because they felt the churn of art in their bellies, but because they’re out of money and don’t feel like getting a job as a busboy.

 

I suppose this sounds like I’m setting up Mr. Hollywood Jr., 1947, as a failure.  It was Penn’s last real record, and it came out in 2005, five whole years after MP4 stumbled into the light and then vanished from the charts.  Or rather, never even touched the charts.

 

He took the lead of his wife, Aimee Mann, and put the album out on his own, though it was reissued two years later by Legacy recordings with some live tracks and an extra song.  It still didn’t chart, and mostly just irritated me that a better version of something that I owned existed.

 

And yet, I never bit and bought again.  Which probably says something.

 

What saddens me most about Hollywood (I refuse to type out that title again) is that it starts so well.  Walter Reed, the opening track, gets literally everything right.  It has every single great quality a song can have: it’s memorable, it’s sing-able, it sounds so perfect that it seems to have not been written, but rather plucked from the air in one giant whole.  The arrangement is gorgeous and perfect, not too much, not too little.

 

It’s a great song.

 

It’s also the only song that made it onto Michael’s Best Of CD.  The rest of it, on the other hand?

 

Well, there are three odd little instrumental/noise tracks that don’t add up to much.  Michael’s had that kind of thing on his other records, but the tracks were at least somewhat memorable, or sort of darkly beautiful.  Here, they’re kind of trifling.

 

Keep in mind, we’re talking about three out of twelve listed songs on the album.  Literally  one quarter of the record.

 

The next three songs on the album are good when I’m listening, but sitting at my desk typing now, I couldn’t sing them for you.  I can sing the odd little tune Mary Lynn, which sits in the center of the album, but that has an odd reel/dirge sound to it, which strangely feels more “contemporary” in a world with Mumford and Sons banjo-ing it up.

 

So the center is odd, with Mary Lynn and the sound/instrumental sections, and then we’re back into songs and they are, once again, not bad.

 

But there aren’t really any classics there, and the album closes out with a voice/guitar song called Millionaire.  Which isn’t listed as being part of the record, and seems to be there to pad the whole thing out, as it’s super-short.

 

The thing that gets to me, even as I look back to this record almost eight years later, is that it comes so close to sounding like Michel Is Back.  In a way, Walter Reed is to blame.  It’s probably Penn’s most perfect song since Free-for-All Came and went.  In fact, if I could go back and drop it on March, I would.

 

Have I mentioned I love Walter Reed?  Because man, I love that song.

 

Ultimately, it isn’t a bad little record, it’s just one that only had one great song to offer. 

 

Interestingly, this was the last time Michael got into a studio and made an actual album.  And yet, out in the world, he eventually tossed out a YouTube video, with a live performance of a song he’s never released. 

 

More recently, he started writing the music for the TV show Girls, and had a song bounce onto their soundtrack.

 

And of course, he’s scoring multiple movies now, one or two a year. 

 

I don’t think Michael ever made enough money to just walk away from the music business.  Scoring pays, but most of the movies he scores are small, and the amount he probably brings in from them are minimal.

 

If I had to guess, I’d say that he really was just tired of trying to be a rock star.  Scoring films gives you a backdrop to work from, and instead of reaching into yourself and pulling something new out, you can instead try to put up some pretty curtains in an already built room.

 

Plus, you know, you get to buy food.

 

I’ll talk a little bit about scoring next time.  But right now, I just want to go listen to Walter Reed again, and sigh, and think about the fact that I might have heard the last great Michael Penn song.

Monday, March 11, 2013

American Idol: The List


A while back, I wrote a blog post about how to win your American Idol office pool.  Ultimately, however, what I’ve learned is that I do a semi-decent job figuring out who is going to be cut in the early rounds, and then, at least over the last two years, one of my middle-of-the-pack people eventually ends up winning.  (Thought the top of my list is otherwise fairly accurate.)

 

Of course, the last two years went to White Guys With Guitars, as has been so frequently noted everywhere that covers Idol.  In fact, the last FIVE winners were WGWG.

 

I put forth a theory a couple of weeks ago that perhaps they were trying to kill Idol by putting through the bizarre over the truly talented.  Elsewhere, I’ve read that it was more likely that the judges were deliberately cutting all the WGWG this year, just to give the girls a shot at winning.

 

Oddly, Billboard recently released an article that showed the top 100 Idol-created hits from the last eleven years.  And that kind of tipped Idol’s hand.  They have a lot more male winners than female winners.  But the females (particularly Carrie Underwood and Kelly Clarkson) have had more and bigger hit singles.

 

I’m guessing between the two women, they’ve probably sold more records than all the rest of the Idols combined.

 

So maybe they just realize that female winners can do more for them in the long run. 

 

I was pretty impressed with myself this year, actually.  I correctly called eight of the top ten, with a hand wave at the last two because I knew in my heart that they were, essentially, cannon fodder.

 

When it comes down to it, there are four really great female singers.  And two great males, with one approaching near-greatness.

 

So here are my thoughts, in the order I think they’ll get dropped:

 

Paul Jolley:

 

I fear that Paul will probably be my Hollie this year – the one who just clings and clings even as he continues to give weak performances.  The fact that I think he looks like Wil Wheaton probably doesn’t help my perception of him.

 

If there was a genuine surprise for me this week, it’s that he got through, especially after the judges had to debate keeping him around in the first place.  That said, he’s also the sole “cute-boy-white-male” among the guys, and everyone seems to think that carries some weight.

 

Still, none of his performances have really done anything for me, and if they didn’t need a top five guys, and could have dropped him for a girl… I bet they would have.

 

Or maybe everyone just really wants a male Taylor Swift, which is what he said he wanted to be. 

 

Janelle Arthur

 

It’s probably not fair to her that I think of Janelle as “the other country girl.”  Frankly, Kree is a better singer by a country (sorry) mile. 

 

She seems sweet, so there’s that.  But mostly she’s boring and on-key.  No shame there, but she was the other, “Well, someone had to round out the top five…”

 

Lazaro Arbos

 

Man, I hate to say it, but Lazaro isn’t gonna stick around long.  The fact is, he’s a good but not great singer who sometimes misses notes and chooses wrong keys for his voice.

 

Above this line, everyone hits all the notes.  Perfection must be attained.  And so it goes.

 

Angie Miller

 

I’ve come to think of Angie as “the girl at the piano,” and I suspect that, like Colton before her, she will eventually make the mistake of trying to come out from behind it.

 

Even this week, even as she sang her victory song, she was out there singing, looking awkward, and generally giving a good vocal instead of a great one.

 

I don’t think that’s enough. 

 

Burnell Taylor:

 

This one hurts to admit, because I really dig Burnell and I think he could have an amazing career in musical theater.  The man can plant himself on the floor and flat-out CONNECT to a song emotionally.  And then he can take that song and pump it into your veins. 

 

But is he capable of more?  That remains to be seen.  But I think that’s his wheelhouse, and when they start throwing challenges at people he’s going to fumble sooner or later.  So it is here that I lay him.

 

Curtis Finch Junior

 

Curtis is Joshua and Jacob again.  Joshua got to the top three, and Jacob crashed, I think, because he got a little big for his britches. 

 

Curtis’ biggest problem is that for all the power in his voice, he’s a bit robotic, and I suspect that his bag of vocal tricks is just about exhausted now. 

 

Still, great tricks, and unlike Jacob, this man never misses a note.

 

Candice Glover:

 

Okay, this year I freely admit that you could probably take my top four and shake ‘em up and get a different set of answers, but as I type this, I think I’m going to put Candice here.

 

Man, she’s a really great performer, and I don’t know that I can add anything to that.  What will finally get her, I suspect is that Amber and herself share the same wheelhouse, and Amber makes it look easy while Candice makes it look hard.

 

Amber Holcomb

 

Okay, I kind of want her to win because it’s clear she’s been groomed as the new Whitney Houston and I want to see her and Mariah duet on Believe. 

 

But we did this last year with Jessica Sanchez, who was a great singer with no life experience who could perform anything but not quite connect to it.

 

Of course, Jessica got dropped last year and had to be saved.  So maybe Amber will get the axe surprisingly early.  And I haven’t heard anything about a judge’s save this year.

 

Still, this lady makes every note look so, so, so simple, even when what she’s doing is kind of impossible for humans to do.

 

Devin Velez

 

Dude can sing.  Dude can connect.  Dude has one of those voices that can go anywhere and do anything, and he sounded just as great last night being funky as he did singing a Perry Como(?!) ballad.  In Spanish.

 

If a guy is going to take the contest this year, I can’t really see it being anyone but Devin. 

 

Kree Harrison:

 

Kree has one of those voices that just makes you shiver, and she has a range that probably rivals that of Mariah, the woman judging her.

 

She’s also hilarious, willing to kid with the judges, and went out of her way to talk about how good the band his.

 

The lady has music in her, and she knows exactly how to get it out of her.

 

My only fear for her is that she could pull a Pia.  Pia, however, never, ever moved, and we’ve at least seen Kree walk.  The question becomes whether or not she can also look good during terrible group numbers, and tackle the uptempo stuff that ultimately killed Pia in the competition.

 

The best news she could get is Janelle getting dropped early on.  Janelle’s votes would move to Kree and keep her afloat for a very long time.  All the way to number one?

 

It’s in American’s hands now.

 

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Animated Movies That Deserve Your Time

I’ve probably tried to write this post a dozen times now, but it always devolved and I didn’t like it.

 

Mostly this was because I spent so much time trying to justify some of my reasoning, and trying to get these movies into little groupings (animated sequels, unseen gems, and so on) that the list got overlong and unweidy.

 

So here, instead is a list of animated flicks that never quite got enough love, regardless of the audience size they eventually garnered.

 

Mulan 2:

 

Mulan is a great movie, and I’d even be wiling to argue that it was the last true classic Disney animation put out.  It’s a classic film that, I think, stands on its own as a great film instead of great cartoon.

 

But Mulan 2 was, of course, a direct-to-video cash-in, which, ech, right?

 

The first time I watched it, I think I would have agreed with you, but I’ve softened on that somewhat, and I think it’s worth a look now.

 

In thumbnail, if the first movie was about honor and family, this one is about the difficulties that come with falling in love and, more importantly, staying in love.  It actually tells kids that loves takes work, and that it’s okay to love across social strata, which is a pretty heady message for direct-to-video Disney.

 

Like a lot of the flicks I want to talk about, I think the movie benefits from multiple viewings, which allows you to the themes and songs to sink in more deeply.  There are other DTV sequels that are decent time-wasters, but this is probably the best of them.

 

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs:

 

I thought I was just about alone in my love of this movie, until I saw recently that a part 2 is coming out soon.  That pleases me, as it tells me it has some traction, but I still think it is under-loved.

 

Why check it out?  To be honest, it’s a writer’s movie with an eye towards flipping clich├ęs.  The pretty girl gets even more pretty when she puts her glasses on.  All the little jokes that start the movie become super-important at the end of the movie (the first time I saw it, it was actually breathtaking for me).  And more than anything, it’s got a wonderful undercurrent about how kids and their parents don’t always see the world the same way, but love each other all the same.

 

Shrek Forever After:

 

Let me get something out of the way: I love Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio, who among other things wrote the original Shrek, Aladdin, and the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.

 

However, much the way that the graphic novel Alan Moore’s Watchmen opened up the comic book world to the cynical hero, Ted and Terry virtually created the “pop culture reference as joke” problem that wormed its way painfully into so many animated features.

 

Shrek kept this mostly to a minimum, but the number of Disney jokes slipped into the film became a touchstone for a lot of the Dreamworks Animation canon of “it’s funny because I get the reference,” and it’s only the last few years that Dreamworks has finally pushed off from that.

 

Shrek 2 and 3 leaned on that button hard, and Shrek 4?  It mostly tries to go another way.

 

Did it lean far enough?  Eh, it could have leaned a little farther.  But the movie takes a riff on It’s a Wonderful Life and shows Shrek that while family life has its ups and downs, it’s still the greatest of all possible things.

 

Plus it’s funny and seems to be working overtime to avert expectations.  To my mind, movies always get extra credit for making an effort.

 

Hoodwinked/Hoodwinked, Too!

 

Hoodwinked is a straight-up great movie.  People knock the animation, but look: the movie would be maybe 1% better if they’d spent 150 million dollars on it instead of 40 million.  Let it go.

 

The script is funny and clever, the characters are well-defined and nicely performed, and I’ve never met anyone who didn’t see this movie and laugh heartily at the goat sequence in the middle, which seems out of nowhere but is an amazing part of the tapestry if you pay attention.

 

And that’s the trick, really.  Most movies, even classics, get a little less great the more closely you examine them.  Hoodwinked actually improves.

 

Hoodwinked Too is the opposite, however.  I saw it in the theater, so happy it was finally out, and then came away disappointed that it wasn’t as slippery and smart as the original.

 

But really, the major issue is that it’s a different kind of movie.  The first was carefully and delicately designed.  This one, on the other hand, is a blunt slap to the face.  There are a lot more jokes packed into this one, and only about one in three land.

 

But that’s the trick, really.  Read between the lines of the so-so jokes, and that third joke in the middle is often wonderful and unexpected, whether it comes from a subtle line-reading or carefully constructed gag.  

 

You have to seek out the magic really, but like those 3D pictures, once you’ve seen it, you can’t un-see it.

 

The Emperor’s New Groove:

 

I’m not sure if this one needs defending, since it sprouted a sequel and a followup TV show.  But I think people avoid it because it’s a non-musical straight-up comedy.

 

Really, though?  It’s as if the people running Warner Brothers animation in the days of early Bugs Bunny cartoons somehow got their hands on a Disney flick.

 

This flick needs no apologies – it just needs to be seen.

 

Battle for Terra

 

In which a bunch of peace-loving aliens are attacked by alien invaders: namely, us.

 

Mostly I dig this one because there are real stakes. The humans are on their last legs, and if they don’t get onto the planet, it’s the final gasp of the human race.

 

This one got buried by Monsters Vs Aliens, which had a larger budget and bigger stars.  But in the end, Battle for Terra is easily the more profound of the two movies – like an animated Avatar with higher stakes.

 

Chicken Little:

 

There’s not much love for Disney’s first kick into 3D animation, but man, what a fun ride.  I suspect it didn’t do as well as everyone hoped, and that’s too bad.  I suspect it isn’t more well-liked because it takes a pretty surprising, seemingly-out-of-nowhere turn in the middle, and some people weren’t into that.

 

In fact, I remember hitting the midpoint and going, “What, what?”

 

But much like many of the rest of these movies, on the second showing, when you’re watching for it, there’s so much love and work in every joke, surprise, and background.