Thursday, July 31, 2008

Johnny & Louise, or why I love Wikipedia (& YouTube)!

Last night I was going through my music library on the computer, obsessively filling in missing metadata on the songs. We have about 3300 songs in our digital music library, some from iTunes, some from the Olde Days of Napster, and most from our own CDs, and I have always tried to make sure that the basic info (title, artist, album) is correct. But recently I decided that, in order to be able to sort songs on the iPod by year, I need to make sure that the release dates are correct.

Hundreds and hundreds of the song files had no date at all, so I sat down with my Billboard magazine reference books (all Hot 100 singles and all Top 200 albums and their tracks from 1956-1996) and looked up the songs with missing years. I also changed anthology and collection years; for example, if I ripped "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" off REM's greatst hits album In Time, from 2003, I changed the date of the song file to 1994, which is when the song first appeared on their album Monster.

So last night, I was finally getting to the last hundred or so songs with missing data, and I went to look up the years of two songs by power pop band Shoes. I could only fine one of the songs in my books, so I thought, maybe Wikipedia. Sure enough, under the "disambiguation" area of the entry on "shoes" was a page for Shoes. But even more interestingly, there was also a page on a song called "Shoes" by the singer Reperata. I love this little-known song, which got as high as #92 on Billboard in 1975. In Columbus, however, it got a fair amount of airplay, I bought the single, and it's remained one of my favorite "unknown" pop hits.

It's about the wedding of Johnny and Louise, with people throwing rice, a bouzouki band playing, and guests dancing while Johnny & Louise sneak off and have marital sex. But for a narrative song whose meaning is all on the surface, it's got a kind of mysterious sound, with minor chords, a swirling choir break, and what I assume is an actual bouzouki playing.

Now for the YouTube part of this post. Though I have the song on my computer, I found a video on YouTube for it. It's actually one of a number of odd little videos which feature someone playing an old 45 on a turntable. The song plays and all we see is the turntable turning. It's not much as far as a video experience, but it does give us a chance to hear old songs which never had videos shot for them. I post it below, but I caution you that the audio is not very good. It seems to be being played off of an album, but it's speeded up, giving Reparta's distinctly low voice an almost "Alvin and the Chipmunks" tone. But it will give you some idea of the interesting ambience of the song. Enjoy, and thank Apollo, god of music and arts, for Wikipedia and YouTube.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

So THIS is what they mean by "chick flick"...

I love Abba. I love movie musicals. I love Meryl Streep. I love hunky guys in swimming trunks. So Mamma Mia should have been a drop kick (and BTW, I'm gay, so is that the right sports metaphor?). It wasn't. It was pretty close to being terrible. Of course, I found the stage show close to terrible; what saved it was the sheer ecstasy of hearing Abba music performed live. The movie doesn't even have that "live" pleasure, though the songs are generally performed in a way that is close to the originals.

The plot has a clever premise: a girl who was raised by her single mother invites three men she suspects might be her father to her wedding on a Greek island (where she and her mom run a hotel), hoping to find out which one is the real McCoy. However, more effort went into how to work Abba songs in rather than to the plot machinations, so the narrative is mostly a slow-moving bust. I would have thought that filmmakers with Meryl Streep at their disposal would have tried a little harder to give the film some more substance or wit, but no. So Streep and all the rest of the cast are left like fish flopping around on dry land trying to get a little wet--OK, that's a tortured comparison, but you get it.

Streep sings very well (her "The Winner Takes It All" is quite good, if a little too melodramatic) but seems uncomfortable otherwise, resorting to lots of hand-wringing and facial squirming when she has to cavort or become emotional. It's a cartoon part and she gives a cartoon performance. Slightly better are the three men (Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgard, and especially Pierce Brosnan) and the two female sidekicks (Julie Walters and the fabulous Christine Baranski, who almost steals the show with a racy "Does Your Mother Know?"). Frankly, the best performance comes from young Amanda Seyfried (pictured above) as the bride in question; she brings some actual emotional heft to her inadequately-plotted predicament. Her fiance, Dominic Cooper (below), is nice eye candy.

My partner and I saw this movie in a relatively full medium-sized theater auditorium and we were 2 out of only 5 males in the room, the others being two middle-aged husbands accompanying their wives and a boy there with his mom or sister, I'm guessing. I'm usually fine with "chick flicks"; I may not often seek out wedding films, but I do generally like romantic comedies. I even liked My Big Fat Greek Wedding well enough, not that I'd want to sit through it a second time. But aside from the Abba music, the appeal of this film escaped me. I wanted to like it, and kind of assumed I'd be singing in the aisles, but instead I was mostly looking at my watch and appreciating the lovely Greek scenery. The direction and cinematography are terrible, almost amateurish, and the choreography only sporadic--too often, people are left just sort of leaping around (like the above-mentioned fish). Thankfully, in the aftermath, I now have Abba songs fresh in my head for a few days and that's a plus in my book.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Lunch break

I'm blogging on my lunch break, so this will be quick.

1) Still liking Swingtown as of week 7. Loved the episode which centered around the Harry Reems/Deep Throat defense fund party, though the actor looked very little like Harry. Storylines remain a nice mix of predictable and unpredictable. The daughter and the teacher: predictable; the straight-laced laid-off insurance salesman (Josh Hopkins, at right) sparking with the stockbroker's wife, a little less so. Also liked the in-joke Chicago reference to Berghoff's, one of the few I would actually get. Sadly, this will almost certainly not survive the summer, but maybe a DVD set will surface?

2) Sludged through all seven episodes of HBO's John Adams. Laura Linney, as always, was transcendent--the woman can do no wrong. Paul Giamatti was solid, though his hooded upward glance got a bit old. David Morse looked freakishly like George Washington. The last episode was unrelieved gloom as everyone got sick and died. Too many close-ups and way too much jittery camerawork. The Blair Witch was nowhere to be seen (which, as we know, doesn't necessarily mean she wasn't present), so the camera should have occasionally stopped and tracked back for some nice ensemble shots.

3) Reading a fun, light mystery, The War Against Miss Winter, by Kathryn Miller Haines. Set in New York City during WWII, with a tough-talking would-be actress who moonlights as a private eye's secretary until he's found dead in his office, an apparent suicide. Lots of fun slang and pop culture references. I read the first hundred pages in one sitting, which is rare for me these days. Looking forward to finishing, and picking up the second in the series.

4) My honey has apparently gone and bought a Wii while on vacation in Maine. I guess I'll have to put Rock Star on my birthday list instead of a new iPod.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Guilty Pleasures: The Apple

Some movies are far beyond just "good," like Casablanca; some are beyond "bad," like Glen Or Glenda. And some very rare few are beyond either good or bad. I'm not sure what I mean by that, but if you've seen THE APPLE, from 1980, you might know. Set in an unspecified European country in the future year of 1994, a music conglomeration called BIM rules not only the music world, but most of pop culture, and, it's implied, even politics (you can be arrested if you're not wearing the BIM shiny triangle logo on your face). At the Worldvision Song Contest, the glossy BIM pop/rockers Dandi & Pandi (pictured below) are the singers to beat, but folkie duo Alphie and Bibi come so close to winning the audience's favor that BIM boss Mr. Boogalow has to rig the proceedings for his band to win. Alphie and Bibi go to Boogalow’s office for an audition; he offers to sign them but won't give them time to read their contracts; Bibi signs, selling her soul, it's implied not very subtly in a hallucination sequence with Boogalow as the devil (pictured above) but Alphie splits.

She becomes the next big BIM star while he lives the life of the starving artist, trying to get a record contract and win Bibi back. He tries to rescue her from a druggy orgy and fails, but Pandi, impressed by Alphie's dedication, talks Bibi into looking for him. She does and the two of them drop out to join a commune of ex-hippies led by the shaggy Mr. Topps. A year later (and I'm not making this up) when the BIM folks come to arrest Bibi for walking out on her contract, God, a rather seedy figure who looks like a slightly cleaned up Mr. Topps (same actor), arrives in a golden limousine in the sky and takes all the hippies with him to another planet. The end.

The Apple has one of the worst critical reputations of any movie this side of Ed Wood. And I'm fully aware that I'm damning it with faint praise when I say that it succeeds at being the camp musical that Xanadu and Can't Stop The Music desperately wanted to be. It feels like this was an attempt to manufacture a Rocky Horror-type movie and on that level, it fails: the songs aren't memorable, the acting is mostly atrocious (there's no Tim Curry to carry the show), and the pop culture satire is heavy-handed.

But what it does have is outrageous style; the sets and costumes look like the work of a bunch of sci-fi-fan drag queens who were given a big budget and a lot of drugs. The production numbers, which come fast and furiously about every five minutes, are great fun, much more enjoyable than anything in Xanadu (though the music in the Olivia Newton-John spectacle is better). The choreography is well executed, and one number, a nasty single-entendre sex disco song called "Coming for You," is Bob Fosse meets Donna Summer. Bibi's big hit is a song which compares America to a speed addict: "America, the land of the brave / Is popping pills to keep up the pace / And everyday she cries out for more… speeeeeeeeeed!"

It helps that the movie can be seen, like Network, as a prediction of where pop culture was heading; the chorus of one song says, "Life is nothing but show business in 1994," and it's fun to read Mr. Boogalow as a slightly more sinister Simon Cowell. The less said about the actors, the better, but here I go anyway. Catherine Mary Stewart (Bibi) went on to have a decent career in movies and TV; the same cannot be said for her partner, George Gilmour, who is glossily handsome in an 80's gay porn star way and has a vaguely European accent—he has no other credits on IMDb. He does, though, have a great, lithe 80's gay porn star body which he gets to show off briefly in the Hell hallucination number. Vladek Sheybal, who is OK as Boogalow, played a villain in From Russia With Love. The only actor I was actually familiar with is Miriam Margolyes (Age of Innocence, Ladies in Lavender) in the thankless role of Alphie's stereotypical Jewish-mother landlady.

I'm not happy with the gay vs. straight dichotomy that permeates the film; though there's only one gay character, Boogalow's assistant Shake, practically everyone associated with BIM can be read as, if not gay, at least perverse, compared to the Carpenters-like whitebread hetero wholesomeness of Alphie and Bibi. But the perverse folks are definitely having the most fun here, and frankly I have to recommend this film, if only because it is so very one-of-a-kind. I saw it on Turner Classic Movies, but it is on DVD.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Another Beach Boy not meant for his times?

The word on the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson is that he was ahead of his time or at least, as he himself sang it, he "just wasn't made for these times." While I do love the music of the Beach Boys, and I'm pretty sure Brian was a musical genius, their music strikes me as very much of its time. Brian released "Smile," the lost 60's Beach Boys masterpiece, in 2004 and, while much of it was interesting, it wasn't particularly impressive--I suspect it would have sounded much better in the mid-60's, though even then its musical inspirations were more from the past than the future.

But Brian's brother Dennis, Beach Boys drummer, singer, and occasional songwriter, may have truly been ahead of the musical pack. His only solo album, Pacific Ocean Blue, came out in 1977 to modest success, but his personal problems stopped him from releasing any more music. He died of an accidental drowning in 1983 and his album eventually went out of print. It was reissued last month to immediate critical acclaim. I bought it and tried not to expect too much (I felt a little burned by Smile, which the critics also loved), but this album is truly a work to behold.

Dennis Wilson's voice was not a pristine instrument in 1977, due perhaps to his prodigious drug and alcohol use. His vocals are scratchy and gruff, but quite listenable; he brings to mind Randy Newman or late-70's Harry Nilsson. His lyrics are adequate, mostly about love or grief or nature or partying, but where this music really shines is in the arrangements, by Wilson and Jimmie Haskell, and song construction. He was a restless composer, with some of the songs here not much more than fragments. Other songs, like much of Brian's Smile, feel like stop/start fragments pasted together, in particular the excellent "Time." In any case, almost everything here works quite well. The opener, "River Song," has a glossy gospel sound; the too-short "Friday Night" has a spooky Rolling Stones "Gimmie Shelter" vibe; "Dreamer" could be an Eagles outtake. Considering Wilson's background, it's a little surprising that the Beach Boys influence is not omnipresent: "What's Wrong" starts with a "California Girls" riff, and the title track partakes of some of the Boys' summery harmonies, but that's about it. His ravaged voice gives a depth of feeling to his softer, sadder songs ("Thoughts of You," "Farewell My Friend"). Only the closing song, "End of the Show" is disappointing.

The reissue includes an entire second disc of the songs that were meant to make up his next album, Bambu. These mostly unfinished songs aren't as impressive, but a few would surely grow on me if I didn't keep playing the first disc so much. The album's instrumental mix is superb, and Wilson's piano playing is often gorgeous, though the vocals sound a little muddy, I assume because they did on the original release. To call this album ahead of its time might not be totally accurate, but it sure doesn't sound thirty years old either. A beautiful pop gem which I highly recommend.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Guilty pleasure: Sean Patrick Flanery

I realized this weekend that I just don't have the makings of a good crazed-fan fanatic; I have big celeb crushes on, for example, Jeremy Piven and Angelina Jolie, but I am very bad about actually going to see their movies or TV shows. More about Piven and Jolie another day, perhaps. This post is about a new celeb crush, Sean Patrick Flanery. I would venture to say that he is best known as the Young Indiana Jones in the TV series of the early 90's, though I've never seen even one episode of that show. He has remained an extremely busy actor since, mostly below the radar in B- and cable TV movies, though he was a regular for years on USA's series The Dead Zone.

I first encountered him earlier this year in Kaw, a fairly good Sci-Fi Channel reworking of Hitchcock's The Birds, with Flanery playing a laconic small-town sheriff whose townspeople look to him for help when huge flocks of ravens start attacking people. The effects are pretty good for cable TV, the plot moves along well and there's even a good explanation for the attacks, and it was fun to see Rod Taylor, hero of the original Birds, as the town doctor.

Over the Fourth of July weekend, I saw Flanery in a Showtime Masters of Horror episode, "The Damned Thing," based on an Ambrose Bierce story. Flanery plays a laconic small-town sheriff whose townspeople look to him for help when folks start going crazy and killing themselves and others in extremely violent ways. Despite being directed by Tobe Hooper (Texas Chainsaw Massacre) and written by Richard Christian Matheson, son of renowned fantasy writer Richard Matheson, this doesn't really work. The violence is ludicrously portrayed (except for the very effective scene in which a man smashes himself in the face with both sides of a hammer), the characters are flat, the "monster," when it appears at the end, is out-and-out laughable, and the explanation is, well, absent, despite a flashback build-up that leads us to believe we'll get one. Flanery, playing the exact same type as in Kaw, is good.

From the evidence of these two films, Flanery can play a sturdy and reliable, if somewhat worn-down, nice guy who we know has some depth of character. He's handsome without being pretty and masculine without being piggish. Currently in his early 40's, he is aging superbly; I'm not sure why he's gotten stuck in the TV-movie tier of actors. At the very least, he deserves a network show, perhaps as a laconic small-town sheriff who... well, you know. (He would have fit right in with the ensemble casts of shows like Invasion or Jericho.) So now my next step should be to obsessively hunt down all of his movies on cable, or at least to watch some of the Young Indiana Jones shows on DVD, but omigod, they are priced at over 100 bucks a season, and for that money, I'd better by God see outtakes of Flanery in his birthday suit, and I doubt those are present. So for the time being, I'll just settle for running across one of his movies by accident. Like I said, not a good fanatic.