Friday, March 13, 2015

American Idol: Season 14 Arrives

I’ve told the story before, but I only started watching American Idol when of my wife’s co-workers tried to get on the show.
The irony was, he made it to the judges… but didn’t appear on TV. 
Mostly, at the time, this led me to two comments – 1) why show all those terrible auditions and NOT show his?  Isn’t that cruel?  2) So, are we done?
My wife stated that, no, now she was curious to see how it played out, and I spent most of the season stating that, essentially, I liked a lot of the performers, but I was never going to be their record.
This has proved to be mostly true.  Over the course of the last few seasons, I’ve bought both of Phillip Phillips releases, the second of which I should review here at some point, and a Kelly Clarkson Best Of that mostly taught me that even over the course of a bunch of records, she only released maybe four songs I actually want to hear more than once or twice.
I mean, nothing against her.  She seems nice.  But, I’m just not digging her scene.
(Oh, and here’s the capsule review of Phillips’ second record – it’s more consistent than his first, and the better record overall.  But there were exactly zero THIS IS A HIT songs on it, and I’m not surprised it vanished from the charts pretty quickly.)
At any rate, we’re three years away from Phillip x2 now, and the last two Idol records tanked.  People who lost the competition in the past came out and sold two and three and four times as many records as the actual winners of the last two years.
Oddly, Randy Jackson, who gave worthless advice and platitudes every year I watched him, correctly nailed the issue with those two records – it’s ALL about the songs.
With that in mind, I find myself watching the current season and thinking what I’ve BEEN thinking the last few years:
My favorites will eventually be swept away.
The person with the best voice will probably win.
And then make a record I don’t care about at all.  Even the tiniest bit.
I mean, let’s talk about last year for a second, wherein Alex made it almost all the way to the top.  And then got knocked out, which is fine.  I get that.
Idol didn’t release most of his performances.  And there were some very good ones that didn’t come out, and could have at least made for a fun collection.
And over a year later, he hasn’t released his own record.
And I ask: What is stopping him?
He’s got a lot of Idol money sitting around.  And he’s got YouTube.  The man doesn’t need a label, and after the sales of the last few Idol winners, no label is coming for him.  He could have a record out now.  Nothing is preventing it.
Instead, his web site is dead, and his YouTube channel has… a cover he released two months ago.
I think I’m more down on this year because I’ve come to realize that even if these guys can sing, it doesn’t mean anything for their career.  What they need are songs.  And those songs have to be something I actually want to buy.
They have made some wise choices for the competition.  A lot of the episodes this year were an hour instead of two, and I got SO much of my life back.
Plus I didn’t have to listen to the judges yapping.  That was GREAT.  They seem like they’re probably decent people, but when has anything any one of them has ever said actually made a singer better?  Or won them more votes?
So let’s crunch the show back down to an hour soon, shall we?
All that said, here’s how I suspect the show will shake out.  As always, my top five will be wildly wrong, but everything below that should come out within one or two steps.
Here we go, from bottom to top:
Quentin Alexander
The bad news is, I think Quentin might produce the most interesting record, if he ever got near a studio.  And he has a look, which means something.
The problem is, he just isn’t connecting with the audience in any way.   He might be able to fix that, but I don’t think he’s going to have enough time to make it happen.  He’s another guy who could really use a YouTube boost.
Adanna Duru
I’ll admit it, I think she’s got a great voice.  But she has pitch issues, which is death, and honestly something about the way she looks into the camera makes me uncomfortable.   No one else has mentioned it, so maybe it’s just me.
Daniel Seavey
This kid.  He’s super talented.  He is.  But he has no stage presence, and even though Tyanna is only about a year older than he is, he looks like he’s performing at a high school talent show and she owns the stage.
Rayvon Owen
This guy… I love his voice.  I do.  And he’s clearly worked a stage before.  Also: Check out his name on YouTube and pull up his song Sweatshirt, which is adorable.
He’s going to lose, because he’s just a wonderful old-school balladeer.  But I hope this gives him the push to get himself a full-time singing gig.
Maddie Walker
I admit it, I’m just not much of a country guy, and nothing she’s done blows me away.  I suspect the country contingent will pull for her (they put TWO country people at the top the year Scotty won, after all) but I don’t see her lasting forever.
Nick Fradiani
This guy.  I’m tired of people talking about how old he is already.  He gives good performance.  But I’m still waiting for him to just go out there and SLAY a song.  Instead, he’s onstage being the worlds most handsome street performer.
It’ll catch up to him, because there are other people who also do that, and DO kill their vocals.
Joey Cook
Too quirky to last, she’ll almost certainly drop out before this.  She’s Casey all over again, really.  But I’m enjoying her work, and even if she isn’t the one creating her arrangements, she’s been smart enough to be HERSELF so far, instead of doing something straight.
I applaud that.  And I’d totally think about buying her record…
Qaasim Middleton
What a nice kid.  Amazing dancer.  Great performer.  I am not yet convinced he can sing. 
Oy.  This could be troubling, actually, as up until now she did oddball little covers that emphasized a certain SOMETHING in her voice that clearly worked.
And then last night she sang and that tone was gone.
So does she fake the tone?  Or did she fake NOT having the tone?
Either way, she showed that she can, in fact, be boring and do karaoke way too early in the season.  So she could be a “surprise” elimination.
If it prevents her from doing more of what she did last night, I’d be fine with that.
Clark Beckham
This guy.  Remember when he auditioned, and he was good but kind of boring?  Who gave him performance lessons?  I can’t think of any time I was this shocked to watch someone come out and just nail his songs.
Tyanna Jones
She’s got winner written all over her.  She’s got the voice.  She’s got the moves.  At some point in this competition, she will whip out a gospel song and make a bunch of people cry.
Then she’ll release a record with no hit songs on a country label, and that will be the last we hear of her…
And so it goes.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Return of Things I Love

Sequels are tough.
I say this as someone who has written a few of them.  Sometimes, if you’re very skilled (or the original product was flawed in some manner) you can improve on what you did before.
But more often than not, the best you can hope for is that you come within spitting distance of being as good as the first go-round.
Early this year, two of my favorite recent things got follow-ups, and I have to admit I was sweating them both.
One of them was music.  The other was a book.
We’ll go ahead and do the book first.
My favorite book last year was, hands-down, a tie-in novel.  Which is stupid.  A tie-in novel is generally the most unfulfilling follow-up there is.  More often than not, the original creator doesn’t have a hand in their existence.  The story must reset all things back to how they were at the start of the novel, in order to avoid conflicting with anything that came before and might come after.
And even then, they’ll often contain details that are immediately rendered moot by any future stories, rendering a lovely moment into something that Never Happened.
And then, along came Veronica Mars: The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line.
Frankly, this novel took all my comments from the last few paragraphs and rendered them moot.  The novel was co-written by series creator Rob Thomas, and assuming I understand correctly, it was based on the script for the “original” Veronica Mars movie, which he didn’t have the money to make.
It tied directly into the events from the new Veronica Mars film, essentially making it a second film in text form.  It kept he same balls in the air, the mystery was solid, and more importantly Rob stated that if it was in the novel, it counted moving forward.
It was a tiny miracle, really, like getting a second Mars movie only a few weeks after the first (really enjoyable) one came out.
I had read that the second novel would be out in a few months, but the months passed and things went to radio silence.  Rob Thomas had turned his Veronica Mars Kickstarter into a Veronica Mars mailing list, and so I figured I’d see an email the minute the second book was available for purchase.
Only that didn’t happen.  I literally found out the new book (Mr. Kiss and Tell) was already on shelves when I randomly decided to Google it one night.
Should I have taken it as a warning?  Maybe.  But I got my hands on the book a short while later, and the next thing I knew I was neck-deep in the story.  And all was great again.  It had the characters, it had the dialogue, it had the twists and the turns.
Fifty pages from the end, I was already feeling sad that I’d be losing Veronica for another full year.
Thirty pages from the end, I realized that I might actually be losing Veronica forever – the Mars contract was a two-book deal, and I couldn’t find any references to a contract for additional books.
And by the end of the book… I didn’t know what to feel.  Not at first.
There are a lot of storylines in the Mars books, which is surprising considering how quickly they fly by.  With thirty pages to go there was a lot of story up in the air.
At the end of the book, everything is tied up.
Is that too fast?  It’s hard to say, but it felt like it.
I’ll try to be vague, but there’s a strong chance you’ll work out some of the ending if you keep reading – you have been warned.
There’s a sheriff storyline that ties up quickly and neatly with the addition of another character who never quite integrates into the story as a whole.
There’s a mystery that’s solved simply by shoving some violence into the mix.  A concept that doesn’t quite sit right with what we know of Veronica.
And there are a couple other subplots that are resolved… I would say fairly, but in a ways that seem to exist more to add drama than they do to serve the overall story.
My friend Harry also read the book, and treated it rather harshly.  And I get that.  Those last 30 pages take three seasons of TV, a great movie, and a really enjoyable book, and they offer up tidy resolutions that should be messy, and messy resolutions that should be more tidy.
Perhaps with another 50 pages, things could have been fixed.  The violent resolution could have been a clever one.  The odd side character could have been better integrated into the story as a whole.  Or maybe it would have just made the book longer.
And maybe some of it was just my expectation, as it took a thing I really loved and brought me back a thing I only liked.
With that, let’s move on the music.
I learned recently that Prince released Around the World in a Day a scant TEN MONTHS after putting out the soundtrack to Purple Rain.  In effect, he fired off the follow-up to an absolute classic less than a year later.
I’m guessing it’s because he wanted to get the comparisons out of the way.  After all, Around was never going to be as good as Purple, whether they came out ten months or ten years apart.
I don’t know that I’d call the Imagine Dragons record Night Visions a classic, but even though it was released in 2012, it was probably my favorite record of 2013.
I’ve tried to figure out a way to explain why, and it’s tough.  It’s not a record with amazing flow.  It doesn’t tell a story.  Their lyrics are often obtuse, and their sound is probably best described as, “that record that has that really loud bass drum on it a lot.”
And yet…
And yet I put it in my car, and it rarely came out of the player for something like six months.  After it came out of my car, it was back in my house for perhaps six or eight weeks, and then it went back in the car and back in the player for another handful of months.
I never got tired of it. 
And I only recently put my finger on the why of it.  It’s because every track was so different, I could always find a song I wanted to hear.
Want a bizarre, post-apocalypse song?  Try Radioactive.  Want the oddball keyboard sound I always hear in Ethiopian music?   Put on Underdog.  Want a slow-drip of melancholy?  Amsterdam, all the way.
It won out over other records not by being cohesive, but my being whatever I needed it to be on any particular day.
After nearly two years of waiting, I heard that Dragons was finally putting out some more music, and I was just a little terrified.
I don’t know who said it first, or their exact wording, but there’s a saying that goes like this: You get five years to make your first record, and five weeks to make your second.
I could see that happening.  After years of touring, the group comes off the road with a handful of half-finished tunes, and old songs that weren’t good enough for record number one, and then here’s a new album and we’re going back on tour.
It’s happened before, to better bands.
On the day it came out, I hit the store and bought Smoke + Mirrors.  I unwrapped it, and put it in the player, and waited for the “new, more rock-based” sound the Dragons guys had talked about to come out of my speakers.
Instead, I got Shots, a song that, yeah, probably could have been a deep cut on a U2 record.  And then after it comes Gold, which amps up the bass.  A few songs later, there’s I Bet My Life, which sounds like a more fun Mumford and Sons song.
And it goes on, each song different from the last.  Once again, there’s not much in the way of cohesion.  Random style follows random style.  The lyrics are still frequently inscrutable.
And once again, I kind of love it.
It’s a different time now.  I have a bunch of other recordings I’d been waiting to get released, and so Dragons is in and out of the player.  And I haven’t lived with the record long enough to know if I love it as much as Night Visions.
But even as I type this, I can think of a half dozen songs I’d be happy to listen to at this very second.
It’s not the greatest record of all time.  In fact, I suspect there are a lot of folks who simply won’t care for large parts of it.
But for me, I suspect it will be a highlight of the year.  I’ll let you know if it ever escapes my motor vehicle.

Monday, March 9, 2015

A Farewell to Glee

It only occurs to me, as I type this, that Glee has developed an odd kind of symmetry.


The first part of the first season – a season in itself, really – was about a man trying to put his life back together by bringing back the group he loved in high school.


And now, it’s about some broken people… trying to put together their lives by bringing back a group they were in, back in high school.


It also occurs to me, for the first time, just how woefully pathetic that concept is.


Look, I enjoyed parts of high school.  But I realized, years later, that the parts I enjoyed were firmly outnumbered by the parts I didn’t enjoy. 


More to the point, exactly NO ONE ever, ever, ever wants to go back to high school.   I get teaching, as I’ve been one and I loved it.  But to actually try to return, after a fashion?


No.  If high school was the best part of your life, I suspect you should talk to someone about that, and figure out what it’s going to take to make your future better than that one time you won that game that almost no one even remembers today.




So now Glee is in its final season, and it feels, alternately, like they’re trying to do two things.


First, they need to run out the clock.  And that hasn’t gone well.  At all.  It’s led to things like Sue building a fake elevator and trapping people in it, which sounds stupid even if you pretend we’re talking about a terrible, mostly-forgotten 80s sitcom.


There’s the fact that the show has now, several times, flat-out admitted that it was a TV show, and that its time is limited.


It has tossed semi-interesting plotlines at us, and then resolved them immediately because there’s no time to actually address them.  Which has always kind of been Glee’s thing, but it’s even worse now.


And on the other side of things, they’re trying to resolve whatever plot points they don’t want dangling.


So characters are getting married, and pairing off, and mostly just trying to cram unearned happy endings in wherever they can, so they can go out on a high note.  (Pun not really intended.)


Ultimately, Glee has frequently been able to get MOMENTS of the show to matter, and so I suspect the final episode will have a certain functional power.  It will be the last time we see these characters, because the show’s popularity is in the toilet now, and there will be no reunion movie.


Heck, so why even talk about the show at this point?  The last day of shooting has already been and gone.  There’s no way to fix what’s coming in the next couple of weeks.


I dunno.


Well, okay, I do.


I want to take a minute to talk about the things that Glee did RIGHT, even though it didn’t do them very often these last couple of years.


So here we go.


Glee introduced me to a lot of music I might have missed otherwise.

I’ve mused on this before, but I live in a radio-free world now.  I’m old enough and have a large enough collection of music that I can simply buy new stuff by artists I already know, and listen to records I already have.


I can become like so many other people my age, who haven’t listened to a new song in five years, haven’t discovered a new artist in ten. 


The people who think that Ben Folds is a new and exciting artist, even though his first record came out 20 years ago.


(Don’t get me wrong.  I love Ben Folds.  But if you make it 20 years in this business, you’re an elder statesman, not a young up-and-comer.)


Glee kept me from getting too complacent.  Or at the very least, kept me somewhat on the pulse of what was going on in music today.


And there were other good things, musically.  They put out three solid Christmas records that have become family favorites.  They produced some truly excellent arrangements and mashups.


And while they didn’t do it often, a few times a season they produced a version of a song I liked more than the original. 


(And man, why did they never release another Warblers record?  The first one is easily my favorite of the Glee releases…)


So that’s the music.


Everything from here?  It comes with an asterisk.


Inclusion was the second thing I thought of, when pondering the things that Glee did right.  It had white and black and Asian and straight and gay and bi and trans and someone with Down’s syndrome and a person in a wheelchair, and… and I’m sure there are more, though I can’t think of them right at this exact second.


Of course, there’s the other side of that coin, that asterisk, where we have to admit the show thought it was hilarious that most of those people were horrible human beings, who said and did outrageous things that would get you arrested in real life.


But on a TV landscape that features only a few of these types, Glee at least made an attempt.


And finally ,there are… those moments that I spoke of.


I remember early in the first season of Glee, a friend of mine noted with surprise that her husband was watching the show with her.  “The musical numbers are really entertaining!” he said, with a smile.


I nodded.


“But some of the storylines…”  He paused.  I wasn’t sure if he didn’t know what to say, or if he was worried about hurting my feelings.


“The show is deeply, deeply, deeply stupid,” I said.  “You have to accept that if you’re going to watch it.  Most of these people don’t react the way actual human beings would.”


And yet, there were moments on the show that really worked.  That, even divorced from logic, could make you feel.  You can argue it’s just a matter of pushing certain buttons, but it takes the right dialogue, the right actors, the right direction, and Glee COULD get there.


Which puts sets me down at maybe the best thing Glee ever really did.  Which was to take Mike O’Malley and make him the absolute heart of the show.


Here’s a man who has spent most of his working life trapped in so-so sitcoms, and pushing cable TV.  But Glee used him for something more. 


I’m not sure how a show that chewed up Jane Lynch and turned her into a ridiculous caricature left Mike’s work alone.  Maybe it’s because he wasn’t on the show that often.  Maybe it’s because Mike is just that good.


But when the dust settles, I can only hope Mike gets a chance to do this kind of thing again, because he’s marvelous.


March will come to a close, and with it, the Glee saga, such as it is.  The show is in syndication, and you can buy it in various formats and… that won’t happen, for me.


I can’t see going through this journey (hah!) a second time.  There’s too little great to offset the too much awful.


The show is over now, and the cast is, I’m sure, scrambling for work.  Coming off a big hit, they might have found fast homes all over the dial.


But I think this is the end of the line for many of them. 


And that’s okay.  For a moment, they were all icons on the biggest show on TV. 


Would that we could all be so lucky once in our lives.


So long, Glee.  Thanks for the good times.


Sorry I was forced to stop believing.