Saturday, August 31, 2013

95 More Songs of Summer - The Earworms of '13

We'll avoid the two obvious ones, but from a pop music standpoint there's no question that the Summer of '13 will be remembered as the summer of "Get Lucky" and "Blurred Lines."  Those two songs dominated the zeitgeist like none in years, culminating in one of the funniest and most brilliant episodes of "The Colbert Report" ever.  But here are a few lesser known gems that have been in heavy rotation for me all summer long:

"You Don't Know Me," written by John Mellencamp and performed by Rosanne Cash on the "Ghost Brothers of Darkland County" album.  A perfect match of song and singer - Cash lends the tune an aura of mystery that might otherwise have been missing.  And kudos to T-Bone Burnett's production.

"Out of My League," Fitz and the Tantrums.  I don't own this one yet, but I sure do enjoy turning up the radio when it comes on.

"Songs That She Sang in the Shower," Jason Isbell.  It's nice to see that Jason has recovered from the problems that led to his departure from the Drive-By Truckers.  On this great tune, he sounds strong and confident, even though the song is about a guy who's a loser, more or less, in love.

"Humiliation," The National.  For about 80% of their new album, The National sustain a tone and mood that is pretty damn awe-inspiring.  It's got a sure spot in my Top 10 for the year, but had it been pared by a song or two, it might have contended for album of the year.

Yeah, so this one isn't exactly what you'd call obscure.  But good luck getting that beat out of your head, regardless of what you might think about the words.

Kicking It

"The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest" was a Christmas present at least two years ago, and I don't really have an explanation for why I haven't read it before now.  In writing about it (as well as the movie, which we watched for the first time last night), I'm going to assume that the statute of limitations on spoiler alerts has run out for both, so beware if you care about such things.

It's a very good book, but in some respects the movie was even better.  Stieg Larsson appears to have been an author who needed someone standing over his shoulder telling him when something was a bad idea, and that person clearly was not present during the writing of "Hornet's Nest."  The entire subplot of Erika Berger going to work at a major daily newspaper and then encountering more general male unpleasantness - and a cyber-stalker - was fairly ridiculous, and did nothing to advance the main plot.  The movie avoided this issue entirely by completely ignoring the subplot, and instead incorporating the cyber-stalking into Berger's work at Millenium - which made infinitely more sense from a story-telling point of view.

The movie also improved on Larsson's treatment of Salander's psychotic half-brother Niedermann, by actually reminding us from time to time that he was still out there, waiting to get his revenge on Lisbeth.  In the book, roughly 500 pages pass between his appearances, which made the climactic ending feel tacked-on and rendered it much less effective than it otherwise would have been.

But I want to praise Larsson and not bury him, so kudos for writing a book that is much different in scope and tone than the previous two volumes in the series.  Although Salander remains the linchpin in "Hornet's Nest," there are at least 4-6 other characters who appear in it more than she.  Blomkvist is central to the story, as are the "good cops" who figure out what is going on with the "bad cops" who had sheltered Zalachenko for so long.  And Giannini, Blomkvist's sister, becomes a hero with an aplomb that Blomkvist can never quite seem to pull off.  And I do wish the movie had given us more of Palmer Holgren, who richly deserved his moment in the sun that Larsson gives him in the book.

But make no mistake about it, without Salander there is no story, and once her trial begins, you reach the part of the book where it doesn't matter how early you have to get up the next morning, you're just going to keep reading.  And with a thriller like this, there can be no better compliment.

Friday, August 30, 2013

There Went Summer...

Call it the "Summer of Daft Punk and Robin Thicke," but for all practical purposes it is now over.

If you think of summer as being a state of mind rather than a season, for us it began on May 24, when our oldest son graduated from college, and ended exactly three months later, when we headed home from a trip to drop Son #2 off at college in San Diego and visit Son #1 in Long Beach on the way home.

So now the Christmas decorations are in stock at Costco, and Starbucks has begun selling its pumpkin flavored drinks.  Which means something, although I'm not sure what.

Because things have been busy on both the work and personal sides of the ledger, the blogging has been non-existent for most of this month.  That, hopefully, will change soon.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Netflixing the Summer Away, Part 1

Lots to catch up on.

Blue Valentine - Ryan Gosling and Michele Williams are terrific portraying a young couple struggling to make things work in a deteriorating marriage.  The movie alternates between the present day and six years prior, when the couple had just met and was beginning a relationship that was based on their faith that they would figure things out as they went along.  Both lead actors immerse themselves in their roles to a degree that you feel as if you're watching real people, which makes their conversations difficult to watch both then and now.  By movie's end they both know something is dreadfully wrong, but are at a loss as to fix it.  You're rooting for them at the same time you're saying to yourself, "make it stop."

Kingdom of Heaven - Directed by Ridley Scott and starring Orlando Bloom, an epic tale of 12th century crusades.  Knowledge of this period of history is not my strong suit, but based on what I've read, what Scott presents us is a highly fictionalized account of the defense of the kingdom of Jerusalem, and how Balian of Ibelin found his way to the city, and became the leader of its defense against Saladin and his fellow Muslims.  As the movie moves inexorably towards the climactic battle (think the Battle of Helms Deep in "The Two Towers"), we see the political machinations taking place behind the scenes, and learn why war was always inevitable.

The cast is uniformly strong, featuring such noted players as Liam Neeson, Jeremy Irons, Brendan Gleeson, Eva Green, David Thewlis, and Martin Csokas.  Edward Norton is particularly good as the leper King Baldwin - you never see his face, but Norton - through using voice and eyes only - creates a deeply sympathetic and heroic figure.

Rabbit Hole - Like "Blue Valentine," "Rabbit Hole" tells the story of a couple struggling to keep their marriage intact.  In this case, they're figuring out how to live a life that has lost most of its meaning following the death of their 4-year old son.  The pain and grief are palpable, and everything that happens to the couple (portrayed by Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart), whether important in the scheme of life or not, becomes a battle against the pain, which seemingly never goes away.  Kidman is particularly good as the mother - you find yourself cringing at some of the things she says and does, but at the same time you can completely understand why she's saying and doing them.  The pain is still too close, blocking the way back to a normal life.  Again, the cast is strong, with outstanding performers like Dianne Weist and Sandra Oh in supporting roles.  Miles Teller is very strong as the teenage driver who accidentally hit the son, facing down his own grief and search for meaning in the comic book he's creating, a search for the meaning of life through the pages of a science fiction story.  Well done, all around.

95 More Songs of Summer - "Stand By Me"

It's not the original, and it's not even the John Lennon cover.  It's Mickey Gilley's version, which hit the airwaves in conjunction with the hit movie "Urban Cowboy" - which to this day, I've never seen.  Gilley turns the tempo down a notch, and even though the production is a little slick for my tastes, his voice carries the tune with a power that puts it in the same ballpark as the previous versions of this great, great song.

"Stand By Me," Mickey Gilley, from the summer of 1980.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

95 More Songs of Summer - August, 1973

I've mined the summer of 1973 pretty heavily for this 2-year project, which isn't surprising since I was 13 years old and probably at the height of my infatuation with AM radio.  The following year I would start buying albums, start listening to bands like Steely Dan, and make my first tentative forays into the bold world of FM.

Kudos to you Mr. Nickerson for this montage that pairs a supremely silly song with scenes from the supremely silly movie in which it appeared.  And hey, I enjoyed "The Poseidon Adventure" when it came out too.  But watch it now, and you'll be treated to some of the best ham-handed acting from genuine greats of film that you've ever seen.  And Leslie Nielsen!  "The Morning After" was the #2 song this week.

#6 - Gilbert O'Sullivan was a talented guy, and wrote/performed one of the great singles of all time.  This was not it.  Although, I must confess enjoying this when it was on the airwaves that summer.  Watching this video is fun for seeing the ridiculous get-ups that Gilbert's manager would make him wear.  He should have told him to f*ck off.

#8 - Is it possible that Marvin Gaye was underrated?  When you listen to his catalog, it's hard not to be in awe of what he was able to accomplish - he could sound like Otis Redding, he could sound like Smokey Robinson, and he could sound like The Temptations.  And like Stevie Wonder, by the early 70s he had fully matured as an artist, and sounded just like Marvin Gaye.

#13 - Wow.  When you listen to Al Green's great 70s hits, the one thing that they have in common is that they leave you wanting more.  That contributes to their greatness - there is an inherent tension in the way Green sings, as if he's just barely under control.  In this live performance, you see the other side of Al Green - the side that wanted to be James Brown just as much as a smooth crooner.

#18 - Believe it or not, I just bought "Dark Side of the Moon" a few weeks ago. 

And with that, we are caught up!

95 More Songs of Summer - August, 1967

Well now, where did that week go?  Pretty busy at work, sure - but even I was surprised to see how far I've fallen behind.  How to catch up?

Well, how about looking at some songs that were all on the charts during this week in August 1967?

#1 - "A Whiter Shade of Pale" certainly qualifies as a timeless song - it was released in '67, but it would have sounded just as fresh and modern in '77, '87, and so on.  And this is an entertaining video, a true relic of the psychedelic era.  I don't remember much about the Summer of Love myself, but I'm sure this song fit right in.

#2 - Never one of my favorite Beatles songs, but illustrative of the depth of their catalog because it still sounds just fine.  In a year or so, John would be singing "I'm So Tired."

#5 -  "Light My Fire" is the greatest 7-minute single of all time, end of story.  I was never obsessive about the band as some others were, but the debut album was some awesome stuff.

#8 - I can't really come up with a modern version of The Association - their hit songs could be called sappy, but man do they deliver.  I like "Cherish" a little more than this one, but "Windy" is just fine.

#20 - You won't get an argument from me if you want to insist that the 70s was Stevie Wonder's greatest decade, but when you listen to his 60s hits in chronological order, you can hear firsthand how "Little Stevie" matured as an artist and expanded the scope of his art.  Great, great stuff.

Sunday, August 04, 2013

A Tale of Two Weddings, or why Blurred Lines is the greatest dance song ever

For those who have been following "95 More Songs of Summer" religiously (both of you) and were wondering to where the countdown wandered off, we attended two weddings this weekend.

Wedding #1 was in San Francisco on Friday night, and both the ceremony and the reception were held at the Marines' Memorial Club & Hotel on Sutter Street.  The bride was Melissa, who was born 8 days after our own son #1.  Pictured dancing here are Dave and Rebecca, the bride's proud parents, who we lived across the street from for a little over a decade.  Difficult though it may be to believe, the ceremony had been held in this same room a couple of hours earlier, and then the guests retired to a separate room for cocktails (open bar!) and hors d'oeurves.

Wedding #2 was held Saturday evening in San Andreas, at the home of the bride's parents.  The scene was a world away from the previous night - to reach the destination, one was required to travel up a precarious, one-lane and unpaved road into a (according to the groom's father) hastily created "parking lot," at which a shuttle picked you up and transported guests up to the top of the hill (and I'll spare you the "mansion on the hill" jokes I'd prepared for the occasion.  This time, the half of the wedding couple we knew was the groom, the 26-year old son of another couple who lives close to us and used to live very close to us.  The wedding was also catered by friends of ours, and the food was delicious.  Pictured here is the outdoor dance floor, surrounded by the tables where guests ate dinner.

Connecting the two weddings was the playing of "Blurred Lines," once the dancing started and the guests had consumed enough adult beverages to really let loose.  God knows I would never make a claim to being a great dancer (those genes all went to my brother, the chair of the dance department at Cal State, Long Beach), but for an old white guy I can hold my own.  And I've got to say, notwithstanding the controversy surrounding the song, that "Blurred Lines" is one of the most fun songs I've ever danced to.  When you consider it in that context, it's irresistible.

A tiring, but in the best way, way to spend a couple of days.

Thursday, August 01, 2013

95 More Songs of Summer - "Missing You"

When it comes to perfectly crafted pop songs, well...they don't often come more perfectly crafted than this one.  John Waite had made a (sort of) name for himself in the bands The Babys and Modern English, but nothing he did with those groups holds a candle to "Missing You," which provided him with at least a small sliver of a section in the pop music pantheon.  This is the kind of song that you can make a living on for a long, long time - which is probably exactly what he's done.  Heck, he even cut a new version of the tune a few years back, with bluegrass legend Alison Krauss.

"Missing You," John Waite, from the summer of 1984.