Friday, June 28, 2013

Ben Folds Five Live

Blogging is one of those things that cuts both ways.


On the one hand, you can write as long or as short as you want to.  On the other, you can write as long or as short as you want to.


I mention this because I just finished listening to Ben Folds Five Live for the second time, and I’ve been trying to figure out a way to talk about it, and there isn’t a good one.


At first, I kind of hated it.  This shocked me, because I love BFF.  I mean, really, it’s right there in the acronym.  I’ve been a fan since I heard the last two minutes of Battle of Who Could Care Less on MTV in the middle of the night, and knew, right then and there, that I MUST own a record by a rock trio with a piano where the guitar should be.


It was the rock band I had always wanted to create, but didn’t know such a thing was possible.


And of course, Ben Folds himself has had a pretty impressive career, spanning 15 studio and live albums, including solo records, BFF records, and other weird little avenues.  And his last album with BFF charted higher than every other album before it, which is a small miracle when you consider the fact that he’s coming up on 20 years of making records.


And I’ve been hanging out and listening to him since Whatever and Ever Amen.  And I’ve loved most of it and at least liked the rest of it.


And then there’s this.  The first Ben Folds Five live album, and I’m not tripping over myself to love on it.


I’ve been trying to figure out why that is exactly, and I’m starting to wonder if I’m just not a live album guy. 


This is probably mostly the fault of the live album in general.  Usually, it’s not there to give you a new experience.  Much of the time, the live record consists of the band throwing some tracks together to fulfill a record contract.  “You need a record? Here’s a record!  Now leave us alone!”


Some live albums are basically a document for the people who were there.  “Did you go to these concerts?  Did you have fun?  Here’s the experience again, more or less, in audio form!”


And then there are live records by guys like The Dave Matthews band or Phish, wherein the object is mostly to document every single great show so you can hear how each little guitar solo sounded, even if only five notes were different between Monday and Tuesday.  “You want it all?  You GOT it all!”


Frankly, I’m amazed bands like that haven’t just set up some kind of kiosk that allows you to buy the show you went to online the minute it is mixed and mastered.  Maybe there isn’t enough money in it…




So, back to Ben Folds Five Live.  It’s billed as the first live album by the group, which is technically true.  However, there have been multiple live recordings of the group put out before, a track or two at a time.  There were some on Naked Baby Photos and some of the Ben Folds retrospective.  So I guess that makes it about half-true.


Man, I’m really struggling with this.


So, all right, let’s talk about the things that bothered me on the recording, shall we?


I wasn’t a huge fan of the sound quality on some of the tracks.  It might have been my method of listening (the car) or maybe I didn’t have things balanced in the best possible way, but the recording lacked oomph, to my ears.  It didn’t sound like everything was carefully mic’ed and prepped to preserve an experience.  It felt like they just grabbed whatever equipment they had, and figured the performances would carry the day.


Which leads me to the second issue with the recording.  The performances aren’t bad, per se, but they rarely felt “special” to my ears.  I could understand this if they had taken one show and released it, but they pulled recordings from multiple venues, which means we shouldn’t just have a solid version of Jackson Cannery, we should have the BEST version of Jackson Cannery.  Because honestly, I would accept “eh” sound for an amazing version of Jackson Cannery.


Instead, we get Jackson Cannery with just-okay sound and ambient crowd noise. 


Third, it occurred to me when they performed a Ben Folds song (as opposed to a Ben Folds Five song) that they don’t exactly have a ton of material to pull from.  They only have four full album of material, and one album of castoffs. 


Here’s where it gets weird: the castoffs record and one of their other records (The Unauthorized Biography Of Reinhold Messner) get one song each here.


This strikes me as especially odd because Unauthorized is well loved by the band, to the point where they’ve performed the whole thing live, back to front.


Even Ben Folds, back on his solo Ben Folds Live album, pulled more than one song from that record.


So, all right, let’s go back to the idea of live albums, and me not being a big fan, and let’s talk about why.


Because this is something I’ve been giving a lot of thought now, and what I’ve been trying to determine is, “If this album is just okay, what makes for a great live album?”


And immediately, I thought of Frank Zappa, and I pretty much had my answer.


Zappa had a myriad of live albums, to the point that I suspect he may have more live albums now than he ever got around to making in the studio.  But all of them are at least worth a listen, because they represented a lot of really unique takes on the material presented, even when the material had already appeared (sometimes multiple times) on other records.


How did he do this?  Different bands, altered arrangements, unique solos, turning instrumentals to vocal songs and vocal songs to instrumentals.  When he made true live recordings, he worked to preserve the banter between the songs, which was sometimes dirty and sometimes funny and sometimes both at once.


Which brings me back to my favorite parts of BFF Live – the points where, even for a moment, they were off script, or even when they were on script and it was a new script.


Partway through the album, we get our first real change-up, wherein Ben and Company start jamming on a Blues chord. It’s silly, it doesn’t go much of anywhere, but it’s at least different and fun and not previously available. 


Later on, they toss a little Jesus Christ Superstar into, much to my surprise, the middle of Do It Anyway, which is such a new song I wouldn’t have thought they’d be tired of it and want to mess around with it.  But again, unique.


Finally, there’s the aforementioned song from Unauthorized, which appears here in a nine-minute version, tacking a nearly four-minute set of solos onto the back of the song proper.  It’s fun, it’s surprising, and it might be my favorite part of the record, three really, really talented guys just flat-out playing off each other, instead of rotely recreating the recordings fans have listened to for twenty years.


And I think that might be the thing that’s really bugging me, summed up in a single word: Rote.


While I wasn’t a huge fan of Ben Folds Live, there was at least a sort of high-wire act to keep it interesting: Ben trying to recreate songs from his band as a one man band. 


And maybe I would have loved this a little more if they’d created their own high wire.  Why not tackle a cover or two?  Why not take some Ben Folds solo songs and show the world what they would have looked like if the Five had stuck together through those years?


And yes, they pulled some deep cuts (though Tom and Mary was an unfortunate choice, I thought, as it was the one song from Naked Baby Photos that Ben said he didn’t like very much…) but why not take a few more?  Why not more B sides?  Since they pulled from multiple concerts, maybe a couple more random jams?  Or weren’t there any?


And maybe that’s it.  Maybe what we’ve got is a just-okay document of something that was really great if you were there on the day.


I dunno.


Maybe it’s just me.




Friday, June 14, 2013

How to Fix American Idol (And Why They Won't)

There’s been a lot of talk lately about revamping American Idol, which would make a lot of sense if it was slowly tumbling to the bottom of the ratings.


But I guess TV pundits missed that it’s a top-ten TV show.  Actually, it’s in the top ten twice a week, every week, even this last season as the ratings started to fall a bit.


Now, granted, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with wanting to do better.  There’s more money in advertising for number one shows than there are for number five shows.


And yet?  And yet…


And yet I just don’t get it.


To date, three judges have quit from last season and two of the producers have either quit or been fired, I’m not sure which.


And blame is being passed around like cake at a party.  Maybe the judges were bad.  Maybe the producers weren’t on the ball.  Maybe the talent wasn’t all that talented.


But, look, I watched the same season everyone else watched, and I had the same complaints I’ve always had.


And the fixes I would recommend?  Fox isn’t going to implement them. 


Want to know why?  Because they would lose money.


Heck, this year, something happened that never happened before, and the judges didn’t use their save.  And the moment that happened, I turned to my wife and said, “No one is going home next week.”  When she asked why, I told her:


“Because Fox can’t afford to lose three hours of programming.”


And so it goes.  (I was totally right, and oddly enough they even admitted it on the air.  So strange.)


The fact of the matter is, so very much of American Idol is boring, time-wasting, or mean.  But it brings in cash for Fox, so they aren’t getting rid of it.


And that will ultimately doom the show.  Maybe not this year, maybe not the next, but a few years down the line.


So never mind that Fox won’t listen, let’s go ahead and talk about what would actually give the show the boost it needs, and maybe get it to year twenty instead of year fifteen.


Thing One:


That results show needs some serious fixing.  Or maybe they could just get rid of it?  But I doubt that’ll happen.


When it comes down to it, the results show is all about giving Fox an extra hour of programming.  You could literally announce who’s off the show in thirty seconds.  Ten, if they didn’t spread it out as: “The person… who is… going home… this week… unless they get that save… which was sponsored by Ford… which is nice of them… because it pays the bills…”


Heck, they could do the opening number on Idol on day one, then send someone home. Or they could announce who MIGHT go them, spend all two hours building suspense, waiting for the “loser” to sing that week’s number to see if they got the save.


Brutal?  Sure!  But it ups that excitement factor, methinks.


Or?  If there must be an extra hour of show, make it more of a party.  Instead of bringing in a bunch of old Idols that people mostly don’t care about, how about bringing in more ACTUAL famous people?  People who are NOT 


And for crying in a bucket, please get rid of the Ford commercials.  They’re barely tolerable at best and awful at worst, and if they’ve sold even a single Ford, I’d be shocked.


Thing Two:


We gotta cut down on judge time.  And other idle time, as well.


Long story short, the judges talk forever, don’t have much to say that isn’t mindless repetition or catchphrases, and after they do their initial selection… they need to cut them loose.  They’re a time-waster, pure and simple, dragging the show from one hour into two.


What could fill that time?  Weeeeeelllllll how about we let the singers perform entire three and four minute songs, instead of cutting them off at two minutes?  Right now, ten singers are performing for twenty minutes total each week.


The show is two hours.  Hack out 40 minutes for commercials, and 20 minutes for singing, and that means an entire hour is people talking.  Judges babbling.  Introductions and videos about the people singing, when all that really matters is, can they sing?


But if you give the singers a full four minutes, well, there’s 40 minutes right there.  Tack on an extra ten minutes for a group number and voting numbers at the end, and you can crunch the show into sixty minutes.  Even chopping out thirty minutes of fluff would go a long way towards making the show less agonizing.


It’s a singing show.  People want to see singing.  Not people talking about singing.


Thing Three


Cut the fluff in the early episodes, as well.


I’ll admit, some of the auditions made me laugh, but it was rarely at the singer’s expense.  I enjoyed it when someone came on just to mess with the judges, like the really loud heavy metal girl this year, or the comedian who showed up last year and offered to sing a song by James Buff-fay.


But watching people who clearly can’t sing come on and try?  Just for the sheer fun of humiliating them?




Shoot, I’ve had friends audition for the show, including one who got in front of the judges.  He didn’t make it to air simply because it was more fun to fill time with someone who clearly couldn’t sing at all?




The fact is, if they dropped a few (or, I would hope) all of those awful auditions, maybe a few more talented people could get on the air.  Maybe a few more careers could be born.


We only get one life.  Why spend it cutting people down on national TV?




I think it’s time to get rid of the “learn a group number in the middle of the night” portion of the show.  They drag it out, try to make it seem like it’s really important, but mostly it makes everyone look bad, and whether people are cut or survive takes on the air of total randomness.


What I’d love to see is people having a full week to put together those group numbers.  Even a few days would be wonderful, and they could, once again, air the ENTIRE result – ten or eleven groups performing their hearts out.


How fun would that be?


And maybe that’s the key thing.  Right now, the show has lost a lot of the fun that should be there. 


That’s what I’d like to see.  Less show.  More fun.


And all around, a much higher singing-to-babbling ratio.


Wednesday, June 12, 2013

What I'm Watching: Summer

I love a lot of things about summer, including the lack of snow and the longer days, but there’s one thing I probably enjoy more than I should:


Not racing my DVR.


It starts to get tricky in April, and downright insane in May, as my wife and I try desperately to stay just far enough ahead of the game.  At the beginning of the season, we can watch whatever strikes our fancy.  Don’t feel like putting anything on tonight?  Fine.  Only want to watch a sitcom?  Fine?


By the end, we MUST clear two hours tonight for the two hours recording tomorrow.  It turns TV from fun and relaxing into a kind of chore, which is sort of pathetic.


But now, with maybe one or two things on, suddenly we can watch what we want to watch.  We can see five episodes of something we’re catching up with.  Or skip TV altogether, because we have time.


Next year, though?  Next year is going to get rough.


Most years, we lose a show or two.  Things get cancelled.  Things get moved.  But this year, more than any other before it, it’s gotten a lot harder for a show to get cancelled.  Ratings have dropped for everything, and even massive hits, nay, top-ten shows are constantly being referred to as losing their audiences.


But at the end of the day, the bottom channel, NBC is ranked fifth out of the “big four” networks.  Behind Univision.  Even bringing back its two biggest hits brought them to… third.  With Fox.  And only just barely.


I could almost do this whole write-up just by channel, but, eh.  I’d rather cross those bridges when I come to them.




Game of Thrones:


I have a few theories about Game of Thrones, and even a few about George RR Martin, how the series is going to end, and what the book series and the fact that it isn’t finished means for the TV series.


There are a lot of ways that things COULD go, but let’s talk about what happened this season, and where we are, and what the creators of the show are saying about the show.


In short, the series made it 2/3 of the way through the third book, which is a massive thing with a lot of big events.  It’s the favorite of the five books that are out now.


And here’s the problem: next season, unless they really stretch, they’re going to start to get to the boring bits.


Books four and five are really one book that had to get chopped in half because it was so very, very long.  And by all accounts the books are weak, filled with walking and talking that don’t add up to much, and a lot of characters people don’t really care about.


Previously, they’ve taken the books and pretty much read them to you visually, with little tweaks here and there.


But starting now, we’re getting into more chopping and molding.  And there’s no real ending out there for them to get to.


Granted, Martin has “told” them what the ending is supposed to be, in broad strokes.  But he’s not anywhere near finishing the last two books, or even the second-to-last book, and he doesn’t want to talk about it.  Ask him how they’re coming, and he evades.  Ask him what’s going to happen with the TV show, and he talks about prequels, or maybe taking a break.


Meanwhile, the showrunners are saying they’ll go for seven seasons and be done.


There are a lot of different options available to the show, but in reality I think they’re going to trust Martin, and try taking a break, and Martin is either going to die or just not finish writing the books, and all momentum will be lost, and the actors will be too old, and the show will be cancelled, and that will be it.  A really good show choked to death by the slowness of its creator.


If it were me, I’d tell Martin now that we’re going on without him, and plan accordingly.  He can kick, he can scream, he can say that the show won’t be as good without his source material, but in the end, the show has an obligation to finish what it started.


Mark my words, though.  Stop watching now if you want closure. Winter is NOT coming.


Warehouse 13:


After a remarkable first half of the season, I was holding my breath to see what would happen with the second half.  And?


And they tried to build a little bit.  But then sort of wandered away from that to do some item-of-the-week plots that reveal some wacky fun facts about the warehouse itself.  It’s gone back from being a great show to being a fun show, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.  But it’s a little sad to see great turn back to good.


Warehouse has also been semi-cancelled, with the last season coming next year.  Six episodes, just to wrap things up.


Am I said about it?  Yeah.  But better that it goes out a good show, instead of scraping the barrel for a couple of extra years and going from good to just okay.


A good run.  No complaints. 




Here’s one of those shows that just piled up.  They held an episode back one week, the next week my DVR didn’t record it the new episode because it thought it was an old one, and then they started accumulating while I waited to get my hands on the missing ‘sode.  And now I’ve got it, and… I’ve watched two.


And… and I dunno, man. 


As I read interviews with people on the show, they seemed to think that the problem was the lack of twists and surprises.  No, it’s that the show just ain’t great.  It’s competent, it’s mostly well acted, and it’s clear they’ve put some money into it.


But most weeks, it’s kind of the same plot.  Someone needs to go somewhere, they do, they get caught.  They punch their way out of it.


There is a LOT of punching on the show, which could be fun if they weren’t so repetitive.  And there are great moments on the show, emotionally and surprise-wise.  But the writing is mostly flat.  The characters are developed, but they aren’t all that interesting.


And why in the world are they walking around wearing coats and the Katniss stand-in is wearing a shirt that shows and inch and a half of tummy?


Okay, I’m getting off topic.


To be honest, I’ve got six or seven more episodes to watch, and I guess there’s a chance that somewhere in there the show finally picks up steam.


But the show isn’t silly enough to be fun.  It’s not somber and well-acted enough to be a solid drama.  And Eric Kripke, for all his storytelling abilities, well, Supernatural, his last show, didn’t get great until season three.


And I dunno if Revolution has that kind of time.


Of course, it’s on NBC, which is losing shows right and left.  But next year it won’t be protected by The Voice, and there will be new shows in, on, and around it, and waiting in the wings, and it needs to do SOMETHING, and do it soon.


I wish Eric luck.  I wanna love this one, but I can’t.


The Walking Dead:


Oddly, this is another one I never quite got caught up with.  The last two episodes are sitting on my DVR, and I think we’ll get to them by… July?  Maybe?  Because it’s rough, and gory, and while it’s a good show that can BE great, it isn’t great all that often.


Plus: new showrunner next year!  Again!  Ah well. 


Overall, it was a more active season, with much to like.  But they’ve all been that way.  I want the show to be great, and it’s just good.  I want more.


Next year, maybe.


American Idol:


Much was made this year of the fact that Idol’s ratings were falling, that the judges weren’t great, that the talent was not as spectacular as in previous years.


Meanwhile, the show was in the top ten every week.  Twice.  Um…


Look, everyone’s ratings are falling.  Idol’s second night falls against one of the highest rated-shows on TV, and a massive cult hit to boot.


The fact is, EVERYONE’S numbers are down now.


The other fact people keep forgetting is that The Voice, even after four seasons, has yet to produce an actual popular musical artist, or even a hit song.  Idol has probably produced twenty or twenty-five artists who’ve topped one chart or another.  They had Oscars and Grammys to their name.  Gold and Platinum records as recently as this year.


The Voice has nada.


If anything, the problem with this season was that it was too predictable.  The singers all went out roughly when they should have.  By the time we hit the top four, the winner was obvious, but if anyone else had gotten it… it wouldn’t have mattered, because they were all good artists who were so different from each other that comparing them was kind of goofy.


What?  Kree the country singer can’t do R and B?  What a shock?  No.  Not a shock.


The show will be back next year, and probably another year after that.  People will watch.  Less people, more than likely.  They’re trading out judges and producers and acting like it matters, and it doesn’t.  Shows get old, and their ratings go down, and that’s okay.  Pay people less, or get cheaper people, and ride the pony until it dies.


Which is to say, maybe two or three more years.




Ah, Kripke.  If you want to see a show reinvent itself, watch your old one.  It went from being a monster of the week show, to having an amazing ongoing storyline, back to a monster of the week, and now…


And now, suddenly, it’s morphing into a show about a secret society that fights monsters.  It’s built up some new characters that were kinda eh at first, but are growing into greatness.  This last season had some lovely setups and payoffs that I never saw coming (Benny the vampire, in particular).


And the show has gone from a show I like, to a show I loved, to a show I liked, to a show I love all over again. 


Great stuff.  Can’t wait for next year.


Modern Family:


Another good year.  Hard to believe that we’re headed for number five.


And I have to add: A really beautiful finale.  Phil, and the actor that plays him, is a national treasure.


The Vampire Diaries:


For a while now, I’ve wondered when the show was going to start falling apart.  The show moves WAY more quickly than any other show I could name, and all the sudden changes and twists will give you whiplash.


Well, as it turns out, this was the year.


The lead became a vampire. A few people died.  There was a whole story about siring and emotions that didn’t really end up leading much of anywhere.


It went from being a show that went lightning fast and made it look fun to one that went a little slower and couldn’t quite find its footing.


And in the end, it managed a minor miracle: it all came together more-or-less okay.


The Vampire Diaries is the top-rated show on the CW, and it will probably continue to be so for the next few years, as other shows flounder and flail and fall off the schedule.  So I don’t think the show is going anywhere.  But next year, there will be TWO shows, and I’m not sure if the folks behind the scenes are ready to make 44 episodes of crazy fun.


It’s possible that the cast shakeups on the show, and the fact that the characters are out of high school, can revitalize things.  But I’ve gotta admit I’m a little afraid to see if they can dig themselves out of the pit of crazy that was the season finale.


I’m skeptical.  But that doesn’t mean I’m not hopeful.




What.  Ever.


Here’s the truth.  Glee was never all that great to begin with.  It had some fun storylines, and for 13 episodes back in season 1 you could squint your eyes and it all kind of worked.


But this year?


Well, the ratings are down, so there’s that.  The musical numbers are generally still good, and some of the plotlines kind of work, but…


It just got renewed, for two seasons.  Which tells you that Fox, the number-three channel in the country, is desperate to hold onto whatever ratings they got, and even after blah reviews and blah ratings, the viewership is still there and they wanna hold onto whatever they can for as long as they can.


Which led us to this year’s finale, where there was a wedding to kind of wrap up something, and one character is leaving even though it’s the middle of the year, and really…. Really…  Well, there’s no thread there.  In the last few episodes, some stuff happened because I guess something had to happen.


Meanwhile, the music of season 4, volume 1 came out… and there is no volume 2.


What I’m saying is, Fox is grasping at straws, and this show is one of them.  Things are going to get even more sketchy, which is scary, because the plots frequently didn’t make a lot of sense before.


But I guess we’ll at least get a few nice performances out of it.  I guess that’s something.


The Big Bang Theory:


The show, it does continue.  There was some minor character growth.  Oftentimes the show was funny.


That’ll do show, that’ll do.




The weirdest moment of the show came after the season finale, when Dan Harmon, who was fired last year, was hired back to give the show a fifth season.


He apparently spent last weekend watching season four, and this week he’s back on the job, making thirteen more episodes.


Overall, the fourth season wasn’t bad.  It made me laugh, it hit most of the right notes and the temporary showrunners busted their tails in an effort to make a show that looked just like Community.


They even managed to negotiate the end of Chevy Chase’s reign of terror in a manner that you alllllmost couldn’t tell he wasn’t on the show for three or four weeks.


Will it all be fixed by the return of Dan?  No. We’ll get another season, and there will be laughs, and if NBC hasn’t managed to patch the giant holes in their schedule, Community will be back for a year six.


Here’s hoping Dan doesn’t lose his mind in the next few weeks.




And here, I guess, is my final sad sigh as I say goodbye to one of two shows I’m losing this year.


How sad am I to be losing it?  I haven’t watched the last three episodes yet, because that means the show is over and it’s never coming back.


There is talk of a Julius Caesar spin-off, but I’m not holding my breath.


A great show.  A great season (from what I’ve seen).  I suppose I could skip watching all those Revolution episodes for a while longer…


Parks and Recreation:


AKA the other show that NBC can’t get rid of because they can’t broadcast a test pattern in its place.  A little more topical than in year’s past, with a few more cameos and an extra dash of silly here and there, but…


My friend, a diehard Community fan, said Parks was the funniest show on TV this year, and I can’t argue with him.


How good is it?  I’ve skipped Revolution to watch it, and cruised through sixteen episodes in less than a week. 


I’m glad it’s back next year.  I hope it’s back a few more.