Friday, March 28, 2008

My favorite Beatles songs that no one else likes, part 1

I'm at the beginning of one of my periodic Beatles jags during which I play Beatles music 24/7--or, more precisely, for 45 out of the 45 minutes I hear music in an average day. I'm also in a list-making mood, which is not unusual, and I started thinking about making a list of my favorite Beatles songs. I found some lists online of every song the Beatles recorded, and, taking out the "non-canonical" songs from the Anthologies (like "What's the New Mary Jane"), bootlegs, and covers from live recordings, I wound up with a list of about 215 songs--I included B-sides and the two songs released as singles from the Anthologies. But rather than do a list of my all-time favorites, I decided to start by compiling a list of my favorite songs that never seem to get ranked by others as favorites, or the Beatles songs I like that others don't. They are:

1. "Blue Jay Way" (from Magical Mystery Tour)--I'm not necessarily a fan of George Harrison's Beatles songs; in fact, I've never really liked his biggest Beatles hit, "Something." But this bleak, dreamy, psychedelic song is one of my favorites. The surface narrative is that the singer is waiting on a foggy night in L.A. for some friends to show up at his house on Blue Jay Way, but they never arrive. In fact, that is the real-life inspiration for the song; Harrison was staying at a house on Blue Jay Way in Los Angeles, and Beatles press agent Derek Taylor, was supposed to stop by, but his plane was delayed and, while waiting for him, George wrote this, turning a prosaic event (or non-event) into a spooky song which seems to be about loneliness and paranoia. There are lots of little druggy touches: a plodding dirge-like rhythm, an organ line that weaves its way in and out of the thick, droning background, and a hypnotic chant at the end involving repetition of the simple line "Don't be long," but which ends up sounding like "Don't belong." As a kid, I took this to be a warning about conformity, though that seems an unintended meaning. Still, I love this weird, hazy song that starts with the line, "There's a fog upon L.A." and then proceeds to bring this uneasy fog to musical life.

2. "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" (from Abbey Road)--More foggy psychedelia, this time from John Lennon. Lyrically, nothing's happening: the singer wants the girl, and he wants her so bad it's driving him mad. The song starts as a regular rock song, then gets a shuffly syncopated beat, then goes back to a rock song, before heading off into a long droning instrumental ending section with chunky guitars and white noise which cuts off abruptly and ends side 1--side endings being something that most young people who grew up on CDs know nothing about. When I was a teenager, I'd listen to that ending in my room and spin myself around in circles; when the music suddenly stopped, I'd throw myself on the bed and lie there for a few minutes trying to stop the world from spinning. At the time, I guess I thought I was replicating a drug trip. I don't spin myself around nowadays, but I still like this disorienting song.

3. "Free As a Bird" (from Anthology 1)--This song, produced by Jeff Lynne with the Lennonless Beatles line-up of 1995, uses a John Lennon vocal from a demo he recorded in the late 70's. Because of the poor sound quality of the original recording, Lennon sounds, appropriately, like a disembodied spirit. The rest of the Beatles sound like the Beatles, though some fans dislike this song because they think it sounds more like Jeff Lynne (who produced it) than the Beatles. But Jeff Lynne's ELO always sounded like Beatlesque music produced with Phil Spector's Wall of Sound methods, so I think it it sounds perfect. When I first heard this, at the end of the first Beatles Anthology show, I was so blown away by it that I got a little teary and totally missed the very cool music video which accompanied it. This is so good, it makes we wish that Paul and George and Ringo had seen fit to record a whole album of new material.

Well, this was going to be a simple "1 through 10" list, but I'm running on as usual, so more later.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Flicks of '67

I just finished one of the best movie books I've ever read, "Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of a New Hollywood" by Entertainment Weekly writer Mark Harris. He writes about the five movies which were nominated for the Best Picture Oscar in 1967 (Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, In the Heat of the Night, and Doctor Dolittle), covering each one from scripting to selling to casting to production, through release and reception, up to Oscar night. Because Harris is so generous with his coverage (and his many interviews with living particants), we get not only lots of information about, for example, The Graduate, but also Mike Nichols' earlier film, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?; about not just Bonnie and Clyde, but Beatty's offbeat project Mickey One. We learn that Rex Harrison, star of the colossal bomb Doctor Dolittle, was a total ass to everyone, especially his wife. We get interesting background about Sidney Poitier, Spencer Tracy, Rod Stieger, Faye Dunaway, and Dustin Hoffman. The book is very well written, well paced, and structured roughly chronologically so that the stories of all five movies wind through the book more or less equally. The thesis, about the coming of a "new" Hollywood, doesn't quite work--after all, the Hollywood of youth films and social consciousness lasted maybe seven or eight years at most, until Jaws and Star Wars came along to build a new, new Hollywood (meet the new Hollywood, same as the old Hollywood...). But for anyone who remembers the pop culture of the mid-60's (as I just barely do), or anyone who loves movies in general, this book is great fun.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

A Nightswimming Saturday morning

While reading the New York Times online this morning, I ran across an article about the South by Southwest Music Festival (SXSW) in Texas, at which R.E.M. appeared on Thursday to give a concert which focused on their new album Accelerate, due out April 1. I have quit buying new albums by most of my old favorites, like Elton John, Joni Mitchell, and Prince, because they're just not producing music I'm interested in hearing anymore. But R.E.M. is the one band I still follow, religiously buying each new CD even as their mass popularity has fallen off drastically. The article had a link to the National Public Radio site, at which I was able to listen to their entire 90-minute concert from SXSW.

They were in good form, and there seems to be some buzz building around the new album, but this has been happening with each of their albums over the last ten years, with little commercial payoff for the band. Each album debuts near the top of the album chart then quickly falls, and they haven't had a song break the Billboard Top 40 since 1995's "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" Their jangly, indie-folkish-rock-pop sound hasn't changed much since Automatic for the People, in '92 (except for the wonderfully hard and crunchy Monster in '95) and the critics have derided them for not changing with the times.

For the sake of their career, I wouldn't mind seeing them make a major change and have a couple of big hits, but frankly, I have enjoyed their albums of the past decade, partly because they have stuck to their aesthetic guns. In this, I compare them to Enya: both made it to the big time with a certain sound, both have suffered commercially and critically because they haven't changed to suit the zeitgeist, but by damn, when they release a new album, I know what I'm going to get and I know I'm probably going to like it. I don't want R.E.M. to become like LCD Soundsystem anymore than I want Enya to become Patti Smith (or, God help us, Fergie).

While I will admit that none of R.E.M.'s recent albums are as consistently fine as Automatic or Monster were, each album has plenty of good music, and each album has at least one song that has wound up with a regular berth on my iPod: "How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us" from New Adventures, "Lotus" from Up, "All the Way to Reno" and "Imitation of Life" from Reveal, and most recently "Electron Blue" and "High Speed Train" from Around the Sun. In fact, "High Speed Train" is one of my favorite R.E.M. songs of all time. Yes, they're all fairly "poppy," and they all sound like they could have come from one album; they still make me happy.

From the sound of the new songs as performed at SXWS, the new material doesn't sound much different--the first single, "Supernatural Superserious," sounds like it could have been recorded anytime since the turn of the century--though a short song they did near the end, "I'm Gonna DJ," has a much harder, almost post-punk edge. The critics seem to want them to revert to their pre-Warner Bros. sound, but honestly, while I like several of those early songs ("Radio Free Europe," "Rockville," "Fall on Me"), I find none of those albums as listenable as anything from the 90's on. When April 1st rolls around, I'll buy the new CD and probably be in sheer bliss for a few days.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Blizzard weekend!!

Well, it wasn't officially a blizzard, but we were under a blizzard warning on Saturday here in Central Ohio, and we did get a snowstorm which dumped between 15 and 20 inches of snow in 24 hours, a record (see pic at right from our second-story study window, out onto what should be a green front yard and a street). Once I got home from work Friday afternoon (a 20-minute drive which took me about 45 minutes during the beginnings of the snowstorm), I didn't leave the house all weekend except for a quick walk to the nearby Kroger's on Saturday morning, a couple hours before we got some whiteout conditions. Earlier in the week, we got a new 42-inch flat-screen HD plasma TV, so it was a good weekend to be snowbound. I think I set a record for on-my-ass sloth: I watched 10 movies and a handful of TV shows between Friday and Sunday night. Among them:

Lara Croft, Tomb Raider: I love Angelina Jolie (especially since that dream I had in which I gave her a hot-oil massage), but I've seen only a couple of her movies. I thought this disc (from our library) might be fun for viewing on our new Huge TV, but it wasn't. I liked her fantastic house and the elaborate tomb she was raiding, and her bungee extravaganzas, but overall the movie left me cold--and the library disc kept locking up so we didn't really get to see the last 20 minutes, and I can't imagine I'm missing much. Of course, I'm not a young heterosexual video-game player, so I'm not really the audience for the movie.

The Nativity Story: Much as I love all things Christmas, I didn't see this movie when it came out last year in theaters; it sounded altogether too "real" and "gritty" and "indie"--I prefer my Christmas movies colorful fantasies full of snow or Dickensian city streets. But this turned out to be OK; it sticks to the Gospels and the apocrypha surrounding the birth of Christ and, though indeed relatively "authentic" looking, there were some nice mythic touches involving the Magi and the star, though the angels were disappointing--no multitude, only one rather scraggly looking guy in a plain muslin robe. The ending is rushed and the performances are nothing special, though Keisha Castle-Hughes is fine as Mary.

Brother Sun, Sister Moon: Years ago, I bought this DVD of the 1973 Zefferelli movie sight unseen, partly because it has songs by Donovan. It has a reputation of being a nearly unwatchable "hippy-dippy" take on the life of St. Francis of Assisi, but I quite enjoyed it. It didn't really seem dated at all, even with Donovan's occasional ballads, one of which almost becomes a full-fledged production number. It helps that the actor playing Francis, Graham Faulkner, is quite handsome (see picture above) and gets a short nude scene. The landscapes are gorgeous and the sets are effective, especially the knockout of a church used in the finale when Francis goes to Rome to visit the pope (Alec Guinness, a thankless cameo). I'll keep this one.

I also watched the 70's BBC production of Count Dracula with Louis Jourdan (OK, but with really bad bat effects), a couple of Netflix discs, some stuff on the DVR, and two old favorite "comfort movies," Laura and Bye Bye Birdie. I also watched The Incredibles; it's one of Don's favorite movies, and when we saw it in a theater, I was on a muscle relaxant for back pain, so I wound up sleeping through most of it--I didn't like what I saw, but I promised Don I'd watch it again sometime when I was in a more lucid state. I stayed awake for most of it this time and found some of it amusing, but I'm still not crazy about it. It's just not my genre--I don't care if I never see another Pixar movie, quite frankly. Is Pixar a genre? Discuss and get back to me.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

End of the world, continued

Jericho is back on for a truncated second season--better late than never, and better some than none, I guess. I think they've shot 8 episodes to run through the spring, and given the ratings for the first two, I doubt they'll have a chance for any kind of third season. I'm not sure how I feel about that. I like the idea of a novelistic show which has a concrete beginning and end, but I don't think Jericho will have a satisfying ending, no matter what.

The residents of Jericho, Kansas are no longer struggling through a hard, quasi-nuclear winter, and we're now getting a "big picture" plot involving two competing American governments. We hear about an East Coast government situated in Columbus, Ohio (Yay!!), but Our Town is currently overrun by the West-of-the-Mississippi government, from Cheyenne. They've helped the town get back to something like normal in terms of power and food, but they've also brought with them a new flag (nice creepy touch) and and are clearly meant to be seen as dangerous or evil, especially since we know that the Über-bad guy who is most likely behind the nuclear attacks (Daniel Benzali, who has so far been able to almost literally phone in his performances) is behind the scenes in the new ruling body--he may be the Cheney/Rove to George Newbern's "nice guy" figurehead president, who was featured in the second episode.

I'm sorry that Gerald McRaney is gone, though his demise made perfect plot sense, and I miss Pamela Reed, McRaney's widow, who I hear may be back for a couple of episodes. I am still in love with the opposites-attract couple of cornfed Stanley (Brad Beyer) and big city Mimi (Alicia Coppola), though I hope that they start getting dragged away from the farm and into town more often. Skeet Ulrich (pictured at right with Coppola and Beyer) is still fairly one-note, and not much is being done with the supporting women. I liked Esai Morales in his first appearance as a military man who may or may not be in full sympathy with the new government, but his gritted-teeth delivery threatens to be as irritating as Ulrich's constant scowling. (And Skeet, get rid of that little beer belly or quit wearing those snug t-shirts) I'll keep watching through the spring, but I'm pretty sure that this will be the last we hear from our beleaguered Kansans.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

The rise and fall and rise of Rome

We have finally finished watching both seasons of the HBO series Rome. The DVD experience was the way to go, as each disc has a viewing option called "All Roads Lead to Rome" which features pop-up bits of historical background information. Some of the info was tedious and repetitious--they told us 8 or 9 times that stories of the decadent behavior of Marc Anthony and Cleopatra were backed up by historical sources--but some was quite interesting; in one scene, Brutus wishes Cassius a happy birthday just before they begin the disastrous battle at Philippi, and just as I wondered to myself if the Romans really marked their birthdays, a pop-up told me that they did, and, at least according to Shakespeare, the battle of Philippi really did start on Cassius's birthday. The entire series is worth seeing, though it does bog down a bit in season 2.

The first season begins in 52 BC, with Julius Caesar having conquered Gaul and on his way to declaring himself dictator for life, and follows the rest of Caesar's life and the lives of his family and associates through to his assassination. The second season covers the political intrigues involving Brutus, Cassius, Marc Anthony, and Caesar's heir Octavian (later known as Augustus, the ruler in power at the birth of Christ) to the defeat of Antony's forces in Egypt and the suicides of Antony and Cleopatra. But don't let all that history daunt you--it was all almost completely unknown to me before we started watching the show, and it remains rather murky, but the series is enjoyable simply as a high-toned soap opera, albeit with lots of violence, vulgarity, nudity, and sex. The large-scale story is made more manageable by being told through the adventures of two soldiers, Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd) and Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson) who, like Woody Allen's Zelig, manage to be around whenever history is being made--and in the case of Pullo, even making some history when it's implied that it is he rather than Caesar who fathered Cleopatra's son (and theoretically Caesar's heir).

McKidd and Stevenson are fully up to the challenge of carrying the show, and Ciaran Hinds is very good as Caesar, but two other actors (both pictured at right) deserve even more credit. Polly Walker gives a wonderfully full-blooded soap-opera queen-bitch performance as Atia, Antony's lover and Octavian's mother. She manages to be great fun and also to make her character believable and even sympathetic. I'm trying to figure out ways to use my favorite line of her dialogue ("Die screaming, you pig-spawned harlot," delivered in a delicious whisper) in my everyday life, but the near the end of the series, as Atia falls on harder times, Walker gets even better, and the climactic moment of the entire series is a shot of her face, proud, bitter, sad, and victorious all at once. Almost as good is James Purefoy as Antony; he not only gives a great performance which gets better and better right to the end, but he's also incredibly hot, and it's a treat to see him in carnal action every few episodes. If HBO's DVDs weren't so damned expensive, I'd buy these two sets, as this is one series that would definitely reward repeated viewing (there are commentaries on many episodes, though the one we listened to in the first season was only so-so). As it is, maybe Santa will check my Amazon Wish List in December.