Tuesday, February 23, 2010

War is a drug (and he needs to score)

I can see why, in a relatively underwhelming year for award-worthy films, The Hurt Locker is getting lots of attention, but I was a bit disappointed in this Iraq war story which centers on Jeremy Renner (pictured above in full protective gear) as an Army soldier who is part of a bomb defusing squad. The acting is good, especially Renner who underplays magnificently, except in one barracks-wrestling scene in which he overplays equally well. The director, Kathryn Bigelow, handles the tension of the bomb defusing scenes nicely (though as with most movies which contain any action at all these days, I could have done with a little less of the constant camera jittering). The atmosphere of paranoia and a kind of forced camaraderie among the squad members are also nicely played.

For me, the problem is the narrative, or lack thereof. Renner joins the squad and immediately gets a reputation for taking daring risks and staying cool (some would say foolishly so). And that's pretty much it: he and his squad go on missions, risk their lives, blow off steam that night (or try to), and do the same thing the next day. There is a subplot in which Renner bonds with an Iraqi teenager and loses it when he finds the boy dead, having apparently been fitted out to be a human bomb--there is more to this story which I won't spoil here. However, we never get any sense of what makes Renner tick (no "bomb" pun intended): we know he's tightly wound and is a man of few words, and at the end, when he returns home to his wife and kid, he misses his job and signs up for another tour of duty.

The message of the movie, as such, is presented blatantly at the opening in a quote: "The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug." Unfortunately, the rest of the movie never gets much beyond that simplistic (though undoubtedly true) phrase, aside from some facile comparisons between war and video games. Though I am not a big fan of action movies or video games or anything very adventurous, I am not immune to the visceral pleasures of such things; this movie, however, rarely got me into Renner's mindset, perhaps partly because the audience empathizes more with the other squad members (Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty, both very good though overshadowed by Renner) who are mystified and a little scared of Renner. Good stories show rather than tell, but ultimately, the movie doesn't really tell me or show me how war is a drug for Renner's character.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

My iPod Top 40, part 4

I've noticed that a lot of artists I really love, like David Bowie, Cat Stevens, Stevie Wonder, Blondie, Paul Simon, and Prince aren't on this list. Partly that's because I still pop full-length albums these folks into the CD player now and again, so I may not have as many songs by them on my iPod. Of course, another factor is that there are 2800 songs on my iPod. Here's the final 10, all of which had about the same amount of plays (between 22 and 20):

31. Valotte -- Julian Lennon: He sounded just like his late dad in this debut single; that fact combined with the solemn tone of the song makes this a sad listen, but like most of the other songs here, it's a great sing-along, even if lyrics are so personal that they don't make much sense--are he and his girlfriend breaking up or getting back together?

32. Watching Xanadu -- Mull Historical Society (a one-man band composed of Colin Macintyre, at right): A chimy, Spectoresque pop song; like "Valotte," rather impenetrable lyrically, but more concretely about heartbreak (though in the happiest way).

33. Elenore --The Turtles: This band had a great run of almost-bubblegum hits in the late 60's; I say "almost" because, although they are sonic cotton candy, the lyrics were usually a little sharper or more satirical than the average hit of the day. This one has some great lines: "Your looks intoxicate me/Even if your folks hate me"; and in the chorus, "You're my pride and joy, et cetera." Happy Together and She'd Rather Be With Me are just below my top 40.

34. Song on the Radio -- Al Stewart: His time in the white heat of the pop spotlight was short (1976-1980) but he produced good literate folk-pop, with the emphasis on pop radio production. Year of the Cat is his best known song, but my favorites both come from the album after that, Time Passages (the title song and this one).

35. Oh Girl -- The Chi-Lites: Smooth old-school soul harmonies in the service of an exquisite expression of heartbreak--one of the best cathartic sad songs I can sing along with.

36. Aja -- Steely Dan: Eight minutes or so of pop/jazz heaven which make my fingers and feet go crazy (so I have to be careful in the car). Also a damned great album.

37. I Can't Get Next to You -- The Temptations: When I've a beer or two in me (never while driving!), I sing all five parts, high, low, and otherwise, louder than anyone wants to hear. I *am* The Temptations! ("Never while driving" refers to the drinking part--I always sing all five parts alone in the car)

38. Take On Me -- A-Ha: Beautiful crystal-clear singing, perfect glossy pop production, sheer happiness.

39. Nathan Jones -- The Supremes: After Diana Ross left, it was mostly downhill for the Supremes, but this chunky slice of kiss-off to a man who's been gone too long ("The key that you're holding/Won't fit my door") with some pseudo-psychedelic phasing effects is fabulous. Bananarama's version may be more famous, but the original can't be beat. The sentiments here would be more forcefully echoed a few years later in "I Will Survive."

40. Hey Jude -- The Beatles: The ultimate Beatles sing-along, and one of the few rock songs that give me a happy memory of my father. He was definitely not a fan of rock & roll--his tastes ran toward Frank Sinatra and Dixieland--but in the late 60's, in his last year or so of Air Force duty, he was in Southeast Asia as a navigator of fueling planes and when getting some R&R at the local bars, he became very familiar with "Hey Jude" as, so he told me, every night, someone would eventually put it on the jukebox and everyone in the place would stop and sing along. The thought of my old man singing along woozily with the "Na-na-na-nas" at the end, along with the younger guys and the hookers, gives me pleasure, both perverse and familial.

Below, the Temptin' Tempts. Picture me three sheets to the wind.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

My iPod Top 40, part 3

21. 16 Military Wives -- The Decemberists (at left): One of the few current rock bands I follow, this is a rare example of social satire in modern-day pop music (not so much anti-war or anti-military, but anti-media), plus it's catchy as hell, with a rousing march cadence.

22. Don Juan's Reckless Daughter -- Joni Mitchell: Toward the end of Joni's pop chart reign in the late 70's, this long song about dichotomies (good/evil, air/earth, skin/feathers) is wonderfully structured, well sung, and contains some of the best lyric writing of her career: "What strange prizes these battles bring/These hectic joys, these weary blues/Puffed up and strutting when I think I win/Down and shaken when I think I lose." My favorite Joni song that's not on the Blue album.

23. I Should Have Known Better -- The Beatles: Don't know why this is here; it's average early Beatles pop. Maybe because it brings back good childhood memories, but almost any song off of their first couple of albums does that for me.

24. The Windmills of Your Mind -- Dusty Springfield: The kind of loungy middle-of-the-road song I used to disdain in my youth which I have now come to appreciate for songwriting craft and, in this case, for a killer arrangement--slow and sexy in the beginning, and suddenly fast and furious near the end.

25. Suzanne -- Noel Harrison (at right): Another great Leonard Cohen song that's been done by countless artists. I like Cohen's scratchy, full-of-longing version best, but this one, sung by Rex Harrison's son, was the closest it came to being an actual top 40 hit. It's watered down but enjoyable, and his vocal is easier for me to sing along with.

26. Cruel to Be Kind -- Nick Lowe: Nick is supposedly a pop genius, and I've tried to like him, but I just don't. Still, this is a gem, with energetic acoustic guitar strumming and a great vocal.

27. Listen to the Radio -- Sloan: Canadian pop band who should be huge in the States (and surely would have been in the late 80's) but aren't. From an wonderful album called Never Hear the End of It, made up of 30 short songs which mostly segue together quite nicely. This one is just long enough to stand alone.

28. Under Pressure -- Queen & David Bowie: This song is good enough to forgive for inspiring Vanilla Ice's "Ice Ice Baby." Great sing-along in the car.

29. Bang-Shang-A-Lang -- The Archies: The first Archies album was a seminal work for me, and I mean that. It was a Christmas present when I was 12 and I played it to death. It's filled with fabulously crafted bubblegum and Ron Dante, the lead singer, has the archetypal bubblegum voice, much smoother than Joey Levine of the Ohio Express. One of my very favorite bubblegum songs of all time, and to my ears, more fun than their bigger hit "Sugar, Sugar."

30. Photograph -- Ringo Starr: The one Ringo solo song that will live forever, co-written with George Harrison, a great pop song about remembering, sad but peppy.

Below, lovely Dusty and and her windmills.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

My iPod Top 40, part 2

More of what my iPod tells me are my most-played songs:

11. Rain -- The Beatles: A great sing-along, even if it does strain my voice and have a backward vocal section with which I can't sing along.

12. Hallelujah -- Rufus Wainwright: A fantastic Leonard Cohen song with one of the best opening lines in pop music: "Now I've heard there was a secret chord/That David played, and it pleased the Lord/But you don't really care for music, do you?" I also have versions by k.d. lang, Tim Buckley, Leonard Cohen, and a nice a capella version by the Freshman Fifteen. This too is a good "alone in the car" sing-along, with dramatic intensity and vocal reaching, though the a capella version is closer to my natural pitch.

13. Don't Give Up On Us, Baby -- David Soul (at left): Sorry, but I love it.

14. Nightswimming -- REM: Mysterious and beautiful, words which can describe so many REM songs.

15. That's The Way God Planned It -- Billy Preston: Preston's first pop hit, though not a big one, but it came out during my magical 13th summer of 1969, so it'll be with me until the day I die.

16. I'm Gonna Make You Mine -- Lou Christie: Bubblegum songs could get away with so much in the guise of being "just" teeny-bopper music. This one is peppy and cheery, but it's kind of about a stalker. Still, it's another one from the summer of '69, as is...

17. Love Child -- Diana Ross & the Supremes: Technically, this was a hit in the fall of '68, but I didn't discover it until the next summer, and it's one of the first records (aside from Beatles songs) I remember working out an elaborate lip-syncing routine to. My brother, my neighbor friends and I would sing and play air guitar to lots of songs, but I saved this one for the privacy of my own room, since lyrics like "I started school in a worn, torn dress that somebody threw out" weren't lyrics that junior high boys sang.

18. Burn Down the Mission -- Elton John: Dramatic, bombastic, with wicked piano pounding and cryptic lyrics that seemed like they meant something--that's the best of early Elton in a nutshell, and this is my all-time favorite of his next to "Rocket Man" (which I guess isn't in my top 20 because I hear it so much on oldies radio, I tend to skip it sometimes when it plays).

19. Classical Gas -- Mason Williams: My favorite pop instrumental.

20. Seasons -- Grace Slick: A very unusual song for Slick if you only know her from her work with Jefferson Airplane/Starship. It's primarily driven by an orchestra and a children's choir; it has a weird Russian lilt that always makes me think of Dr. Zhivago, and a fantastic speed-up finale. See below:

Friday, February 12, 2010

My iPod Top 40, part 1

Within days of becoming a rabid fan of pop radio (back in 1969 when I was 13), I also became a collector of pop charts. Every trip to downtown Lazarus was an occasion to pick up the WCOL Hit Line, a printed list of that station's Top 30, and not long after that, I discovered that a little newsstand right in Grove City (the Columbus suburb where I lived) carried Billboard Magazine, which published the national music charts of record for the music industry. I couldn't afford to buy every weekly issue, but I bought as many as I could, and I still have a pile of at least a hundred in my mom's basement (even though it's unbecoming for an 50+ man to still use his mom's house as a storage facility). I also still have hundreds of WCOL charts from 1969 through about 1976, and they are cherished possessions. I was also a faithful listener of Casey Kasem's American Top 40, every Sunday morning after church.

Though I liked watching the rise and fall of the records I loved (and hated), what I really liked was seeing the names of records that weren't on the local charts. It always seemed that among those songs could be some fantastic overlooked pop gem that Columbus radio was keeping from my ears. To be honest, Columbus was actually a dream town for pop music. WCOL-AM was relatively adventurous back then and would often give odd little songs airplay after dark, even if the songs never actually made their chart, and later WNCI-FM would become even more interesting, with a top 50 list that always included some strange things. Lazarus would carry many more singles than WCOL played, so sometimes I'd buy a 45 that I'd never actually heard. One way or another, I wound up able to hear almost every song that made Billboard's Top 100.

Those days are long behind me--I gave up on current pop music sometime in grad school (mid-90's)--though I have never lost my fascination with music charts. You can ask some of my co-workers about my ongoing side project (in which I indulged at work at the reference desk when things were slow) of making my own singles charts for each year from the mid-60's to the mid-90's, in which I collated chart info from as many as 10 different online sources (trade publications, radio station playlists, and other lists that other chart fanatics had previously put together. Someday maybe I'll post some of those here.

But now, I have my own top 40. Not necessarily what I would pick as a carefully considered list of my favorite songs, or the ones I think are most important or influential, or even the ones that mean the most to me personally, but the ones that I've actually been listening to the most on my computer and iPod over the past couple of years. Some caveats: Many of these songs are here because they are on several playlists (based on genre or years or artists) that I have in heavy rotation; some are here because when they come on, I don't care enough to turn them off or skip to the next song; some are here because they put me in a certain mood in which I like to be; and I'm finding many to be here because they are fun and easy to sing along with. My list, with annotations, below and over the next few days.

1. Barbara Allen -- Art Garfunkel: This old folk ballad is about a young man who withers away and dies because the love of his life, Barbara Allen, was pissed off at him for dissing her at the tavern a few nights earlier. Then she dies. I hope there is more to the story than that, but I have yet to read any more interesting interpretation. This version is on Garfunkel's first solo album (from 1973), which I owned but never listened to much. I discovered it a few years ago and I enjoy both the weird storyline and Garfunkel's crystal-clear tone and emotional reading of the song. This is by far the most-played song on my iPod, I guess because it is on several different playlists (70's, folk, "Nightswimming," High School). Though I'm no Art Garfunkel vocally, when I put the melody down a notch, I can sing along pretty well.

2. Shine on Me -- The Wondermints: Wonderful glowing 21st century bubblegum; more about it here.

3. Alice Long -- Tommy Boyce & Bobby Hart: Wonderful bubbly 1960's bubblegum, from two guys who wrote several Monkees songs. [At the top is a picture of the Bilboard Hot 100 from my birthday week in 1968, and if you click on it for the larger version, you can see this song perched at #34.] Speaking of the Monkees...

4. Daydream Believer -- The Monkees: One of the first 45's I ever bought.

5. Love is Blue -- Paul Mauriat: The epitome of Euro-easy listening lounge music

6. Blue Jay Way -- The Beatles: More here.

7. The Magic Garden -- Dusty Springfield: The first of two Jimmy Webb songs in the top 10; I whimsically came up with a entire genre of music named after this whimsical but intense song (see here).

8. The Girl's Song -- The Fifth Dimension: Another Jimmy Webb song; stupid title, but catchy as hell. I don't know why the Fifth didn't have a bigger hit with it.

9. Tomorrow Never Knows -- The Beatles: I don't sing along as much as yell or chant along.

10. Across the Universe -- Rufus Wainwright: I actually like the various Beatles versions of this song better (from a charity album, from Let It Be, from bootlegs, from the Let It Be remix album) but Rufus's vocals are strong and clear, and again, fun to sing along with.

More soon... Below, a YouTube slide show of "The Girl's Song"

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

God & Ricky Gervais

To make his first film as writer and director (along with Matthew Robinson), Ricky Gervais seems to have made a pact with the devil, so to speak. The Invention of Lying has a brilliant and thought-provoking "indie film" premise but it comes wrapped up in mainstream Hollywood romantic comedy packaging, and that packaging ultimately overwhelms the interesting gift inside (yes, a tortured metaphor if ever I wrote one).
Gervais and Robinson have dreamed up a world in which the ability to lie never evolved. People never say what isn’t true and have no concept of lying, to the point where there apparently is no such thing as fiction—Gervais's character works at a film studio and all films are tedious historical documentaries. There is also, we eventually learn, no such thing as religion since no one has made up stories about gods or afterlives. As Gervais' mother lies dying in a hospital bed, horrified at the prospect that life is over, Gervais desperately tries to console her by telling her she’s going to a better place where everyone has a mansion and she’ll see all her old friends again. Mom dies with a smile on her face and the nurses who overheard his story spread the word about this afterlife, not realizing he made it up. Soon he has become a somewhat unwilling prophet, a combination of Moses and Jesus, improvising stories about a big man in the sky who has given him rules for living for the crowds who have come to his door.

This is a daring and refreshing premise for a movie: to take for granted that religions are not "true" in the rational historical sense. And it did provoke me to thinking: while I'm on Gervais's side and not a believer in any religion (I'd sooner believe in the Greek gods than the Holy Trinity), I also am not sure I'd say that every religious prophet is a "liar." If a person really believed that Jesus Christ died, was resurrected, and went to Heaven to save our souls, I wouldn't say that he is lying. Rather than believing something that isn't so, he is believing something that would seem to be against rational thinking, but that isn't necessarily a lie. More interesting is the idea that religions are fictions, told and believed for a variety of purposes, from social control to placating the sick and depressed, but this isn't explored at all in the film.

At any rate, this is bracing stuff for a while, and it's also funny to see people unable to tell even "white lies" for social convenience. Jennifer Garner, the woman Gervais is dating, tells him time and time again that he's too short and pudgy to be good genetic stock for her childbearing efforts. When he arrives for their first date, he says she seems distracted and she admits that she had been in the middle of masturbating, then goes off to finish before they leave for dinner--funny, it was always my experience that masturbating happened *after* dinner, when the date didn't go like you wanted it to. The centerpiece of the movie seems to be Gervais's delivery of his made-up "ten commandments," written out on two tablet-like pizza boxes; this plays out like an inspired bit of stand-up comedy and is indeed quite funny. But eventually, the triangle between Gervais, Garner, and the handsome but shallow Rob Lowe takes center stage and the movie winds up safely in romantic comedy territory.

Still, it's different for a Hollywood film. I'm not sure how I feel about Ricky Gervais. I liked his series Extras, but didn't love it. I liked The Office OK, but didn't keep watching it. He does the schlubby everyman bit well (an everyman who is often a bit of a jackass), but he will need to either grow beyond that or flesh it out a bit to sustain a movie career. I do recommend this film and give big points to Gervais for going where few others have gone before him.