Sunday, March 29, 2015

Handful of Old Movies Get a Look in My Queue

I've been catching up on some old movies lately. Some classic, some a little less than classic.

Funny Farm: This is a relatively terrible Chevy Chase flick from 1988, the downside of a time when he was arguably the funniest movie-comedian in America. Gene Siskel once called it Chase's funniest film, a serious stretch for one that has a few laughs but is pretty badly dated by now. I had never seen it. Must have been going to too many Boston and AC/DC concerts that year.
**1/2 out of ***** stars

Dazed and Confused: After my favorite movie of 2014, Boyhood, I had to go back and watch Richard Linklater's other great Texas epic. This one was named Quentin Tarantino's 10th favorite film of all time for good reason. Beyond star-cameos galore, this view of high-school life in Austin captures the ethos of an entire generation of kids growing up in the 1970s and 1980s.
***** out of ***** stars

Pee-Wee's Big Adventure: I somehow never saw this, although I recognized the numerous catchphrases that still hold strong today ("I know you are but what am I?"). It's pretty funny and even educational stuff, and, as my 7-year-old said, "Pee-Wee makes funny faces."
**** out of ***** stars

The Man With Two Brains: Steve Martin comes nowhere close to The Jerk or Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid in this completely wacky script. Playing a neurosurgeon with an unpronounceably name (in the grand tradition of Chase's Fletch), Martin is nevertheless still funny and this one is still worth watching.
***1/2 out of ***** stars

An Affair to Remember: Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr star in this exceedingly romantic film, which suffers just a bit because Grant's typical comedic touches are largely missing. Instead, he is very George Clooney, meaning suave and very handsome, as he becomes friends on a passenger ship with Kerr between Europe and New York before slowly falling in love even amidst some traumatic setbacks.
***1/2 out of ***** stars

The Object of My Affection: The acting talents of Jennifer Aniston and Paul Rudd are pretty raw in this 1998 film. But it's entertaining enough and is pretty important in bringing societal acceptability of gay relationships to a more mass audience.
*** out of ***** stars

Monday, March 9, 2015

The Flaming Lips' Journey From Long John Silvers to Madison Square Garden

As part of my ongoing series of highlights from my expansive personal rock'n roll library:

It's pretty cool that music-journalist Jim DeRogatis' Staring At Sound: The True Story of Oklahoma's Fabulous Flaming Lips opens on New Year's Eve 2004 when the band played Madison Square Garden with Sleater Kinney and Wilco. Because I was there too.

A teamster working backstage said he had never seen anything like the display the Lips put on that night, which included a giant inflatable sun, clouds of smoke, a barrage of lights and video, and a non-stop New Year's rain of confetti.

It was a long way from where leading Lip Wayne Coyne had come from since the 11-year stretch years ago he spent as a fry cook at a fast-food fish restaurant.

Turns out, Coyne grew up with five siblings and, when he was less than one-years-old, his family up and moved from Pittsburgh to Oklahoma City. When he was nine, his dad was accused of embezzling funds from his business, but was acquitted. Nevertheless, it was a trying time in the Coyne family history.

Organized sports in high school didn't really suit Coyne. Instead, he and his brothers and their friends formed to sandlot football team called the fearless freaks, a name that would later be associated with some of the Lips' musical output, some of which is my very favorite psychedelic pop ever produced. Anyway, Coyne says they would listen to Pink Floyd, smoke a joint, and then go play sandlot football.

Beginning his sophomore year, he worked as a fry cook at Long John Silver, which Coyne actually credits as being pretty productive in that it helped him think about his life. Although he has never done that many drugs, he did sell pot while he worked at Long John Silvers.

Next up: a look at part of the early years of the Velvet Underground.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Top 40 Albums of 2014

This may be the latest "year-end Top 40 Albums of 2014" list of all the countless others. But since you were so overwhelmed with these back in December and January, I figure you all must be just about ready to actually absorb this list and relive 2014 one last time.

  • Honorable Mention: The Whigs - Modern Creation: This isn't the best release by this band, but I still like their Athens style of garage rock. Foxygen - ... And Star Power: Still one of my very favorite new bands, but this release tips the scale way too much towards the "psych" instead of the the "pop." An unfortunate misstep.
  • 40. Band of Horses - Live at Ryman: Live and still beautiful.
  • 39. Pixies - Indie Cindy: Some catchy numbers are scattered throughout, but this should be higher on the list as a comeback release with so much anticipation.
  • 38. Broken Bells - After the Disco: Groovy little understated dance jammer.
  • 37. Taylor Swift - 1989: This has a couple of the most catchy tracks of the year on it, with it's main drawback that Swift sounds a little samey over much of this long-player.
  • 36. Bob Mould - Beauty & Ruin: Another high-quality solo effort that shifts effortlessly from rock of Husker Du to power-pop of Sugar.
  • 35. J. Mascis - Tied to a Star: Think of Dinosaur Jr. in quiet mode and that's what this solo release is all about. Great for background and would be higher if it didn't feel like Mascis has kind of already done this.
  • 34. The Both - The Both: It's really hard to argue against a partnership of songs by Ted Leo and Aimee Mann.
  • 33. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers - Hypnotic Eye: If you like TP, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this collection, which only suffers from having no clear-cut mega-hits.
  • 32. Cheetahs - Cheatahs: Like the second (or third) coming of early Dinosaur Jr./My Bloody Valentine. Wailing guitar pop. Picking up where Yuck started the 1990s indie-noise-rock revival of a few years ago.
  • 31. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart - Days of Abandon: Not as good as their earlier albums all the way through, but some of the perfect rainy, Sunday-morning tunes at the start make it a keeper.
  • 30. JEFF the Brotherhood - Dig the Classics EP: This two-piece is really good at recording pop, punk, metal tracks, even if this collection is just a bunch of covers.
  • 29. Fugazi - First Demo: This gem is not a lot different than the eventual final products, but to have heard this lively and great-sounding demo must have blown the minds of all who heard it firsthand.
  • 28. The Hold Steady - Teeth Dreams: This might be the best HS release for simply putting on in the background and enjoying and grooving with all the way through.
  • 27. Against Me! - Transgender Dysphoria Blues: The amazing story behind this band and its transgender lead singer plays out in full punk glory throughout this disc.
  • 26. Sweet Apple - The Golden Age of Glitter: GBV meets Cobra Verde ... literally. And it sounds like it. Lead-off track "Wish You Could Stay (A Little Longer)" is one of the best pop-rockers of the year.
  • 25. Dean Wareham - Dean Wareham: In solo name only, this mellow release feels every bit as good as if it were a new Luna offering.
  • 24. Drive-By Truckers - English Oceans: After a few less-interesting albums, these alt-country shit-kickers make a great set of stompers and ballads.
  • 23. Stars - No One Is Lost: A bouncy soul-pop album that is probably the most dance-y thing on this list.
  • 22. Bishop Allen - Lights Out: This band continues to offer pleasant pop with a few standouts that could be big hits in a fair musical landscape.
  • 21. Parquet Courts - Sunbathing Animal/Content Nausea: Carrying the torch of Lou Reed and The Strokes. Rocking the NYC streets.
  • 20. Cymbals Eat Guitars - Lose: This is the best emo record of the past several years, and even descends into Archers of Loaf, psychedelic territory at times. A real surprise.
  • 19. Comet Gain - Paperback Ghosts: British indie rockers who go from Syd Barrett psych to beautiful Bell and Sebastian-like pop. The melodies really pick up in the second half.
  • 18. Jenny Lewis - The Voyager: Stevie Nicks for a new generation, this album by a former child TV star and Rilo Kiley leader is a Laurel Canyon, laid-back delight all the way through.
  • 17. The New Mendicants - Into the Lime: Joe Pernice and Norman Blake of Teenage Fanclub lead this new supergroup. It sounds just like what you would imagine, which is perfect.
  • 16. Nude Beach - 77: Tom Petty for a new generation, and one of my very favorite bands these days.
  • 15. The Vaselines - V For Vaselines: A second comeback album from one of Kurt Cobain's favorite bands continues to display how this band has basically never released a less-than-very-good song.
  • 14. Guided By Voices - Cool Planet: I don't care how many albums they've released. This is still better than 99% of the stuff out there. And possibly their last ever.
  • 13. Guided By Voices - Watch Me Jumpstart: Ditto. And possibly their second-to-last ever.
  • 12. Doug Gillard - Parade On: Three-in-a-row GBV-related releases. Former guitarist is a masterful power popper in his own right.
  • 11. Miniature Tigers - Cruel Runnings: This one took me by surprise. I've liked the Tigers for years, but this is a different kind of dance-pop joy (all about a breakup) from them.
  • 10. Bart Davenport - Physical World: This pop troubadour has been putting out great albums for more than a decade, with this slow grower verging into of Montreal and Ariel Pink meets 70s soft rock.
  • 09. Pink Mountaintops - Get Back: Punk classic-rockers continue their under appreciated run of great albums, this time with actual J. Mascis solos sprinkled liberally.
  • 08. King Tuff - Black Moon Spell: Chorus to song called "Headbanger:" "Bang a little head." Nuff said.
  • 07. Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks - Wigout At Jagbags: Even with a seemingly lesser Malkmus release, this one has enough weirdo detours and pop classics to chart pretty high on this list.
  • 06. Spoon - They Want My Soul: Typically great-all-the-way through Spoon record, spanning weirdo to mellow to rocking to good-mood, this is one of my favorite Spoon releases, which is saying a lot.
  • 05. New Pornographers - Brill Bruisers: Yet another near-perfect album from this supergroup. Leader A.C. Newman divvies out the song-writing credits nicely to his compatriots.
  • 04. Beck - Morning Phase: It's kind of no fair for all these other artists in these year-end lists whenever Beck decides to issue a release in a given year. Some complained that this was Sea Change Part 2. If that's the complaint, I hope 2015 brings Sea Change Part 3.
  • 03. Lydia Loveless - Somewhere Else: By far the best alt-country release of the year. Her third release puts her amongst the Ohio greats like Guided By Voices and The Pretenders.
  • 02. FREEMAN - Freeman: One-half of Ween returns with a new project that might just be the best thing Ween never released. Weird and beautiful pleasures.
  • 01. Ex Hex - Rips: I've always been a fan of leader Mary Timony, but nothing prepared me for how absolutely enjoyable this album is. It almost renders all other power pop punk before it unnecessary.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Rapture, Blister, Burn is the Most Fun I've Had With Feminism

To those who have seen the Roundhouse Theater in Bethesda's current production of Rapture, Blister, Burn, it should be no surprise that writer Gina Gionfriddo has written TV episodes of House of Cards, Cold Case, and Law & Order.

This is one of the snappiest plays around, featuring exceptional comic timing from all five actors, who deliver the most fun I've ever had with feminism.

The play, which ends this weekend, offers a compellingly told crash course in feminism, mainly featuring Betty Friedan and Phyllis Schlafly. Michelle Six's Catherine has returned from her feminist-studies book-speaking circuit to visit college pals Gwen (Beth Hylton) and Don (Tim Getman), whose marriage has grown unexciting.

At first, it seems Don, played by Getman with a mix of Homer Simpson and Bill Murray, will surely have an affair with babysitter Avery (Maggie Erwin), but that is not who he has an affair with at all. He gets tossed between his wife and Catherine like a rag doll. This is a nice touch, putting the lone man in the downtrodden and abused position previously and traditionally held by women.

Sticking around, Catherine offers a class that is only attended by Gwen and Avery. Because of the low turn-out, she decides to hold it at the home of her mother (Helen Hedman), who provides the martinis to juice up the hilarious inter-generational conversations relating horror movies, porn, internet dating, and much more to feminism.

By the end, the older generation is "hooking up" and the younger generation is longing for a balanced career and family life.

This is a brilliant play, and playwrights would be wise to follow Gionfriddo's style of mixing well-told historical background with deeply explored and empathic fictional characters.

***** out of ***** stars

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Warriors: Book Versus Movie

Because The Warriors was released in theaters in 1979, it has always been considered part of a relatively cheesy era (like yacht rock, which was at its peak at the time).

But not only was it famous for knocking Star Wars out of the number-one box-office spot, it was really influential to me when when I first saw it as a freshman at Southern Illinois University. I watched it again and again, both scared of the gang life it depicted and transfixed by the thought of getting to New York City someday.

I think it sparked my love affair with subway systems, as much of the action takes place on late-night platforms and in trains filled with the dregs of society and people with long and unfortunate backstories that we'll never know.

The movie, ranked as my 22nd overall, does a great job of personalizing and humanizing each of the members of The Warriors, a gang framed for the killing of the city's top gangster and has to make it back to their home turf of Coney Island without being picked off in all the enemy territories they have to make it through on the way.

There are many differences between the film and the book that is the basis for the film, which was written by Sol Yurick (pictured) in 1965 and which I just finished reading. Based on the book and film, it appears New York City didn't change much between 1965 and 1979. It was a fascinating, dangerous, and dark place, filled with Times Square prostitutes, unruly and barely-parented street children, and suspicious and violent policemen.

In the book, the title "The Warriors" refers to all the gangs of the city, which are attempting to band together to overthrow all the non-gangsters before the plan quickly turns into chaos. The Coney Island gang is actually named The Dominators in the novel. And they are much less lovable than in the movie, going so far as to brutally rape a girl and viciously murder a mostly innocent passerby.

Other key differences: All the names of the gang are changed, six of the Warriors make it home from that fateful night whereas only four of the Dominators do, and there is really no framing of the Dominators for the top gangster's murder as are the Warriors in the movie.

The book is a great and quick read. The negatives are that I kept waiting for one of the gang members to fall into the subway or meet some of the other endings that the movie gangsters so deliciously met. Some of the scenes are overly long considering that much less often happens in them compared to the unrelenting action of the film. The good news is that if you love the movie, then there are enough differences to make the book well worth reading.

**** out of ***** stars

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Indie Movie Binge: Which Recent DVD Releases Are Worth It

With our recent re-upping of Netflix after a time away, I've been able to hit a spate of indie flicks in the way I used to in my 20s in the mid-90s when I presumably had nothing better to do.

None of these reach Richard Linklater Boyhood levels (my movie of 2014), which, much like his past releases Slacker, School of Rock, and Dazed and Confused, holds the grand torch of best-of-the-best. But I still enjoyed this binge. From best to worst ...

Wish I Was Here

The strong soundtrack including The Shins is where Zack Braff's latest ends at being like Garden State and Scrubs, his very-high career highlights thus far. There are some funny moments, but it's mostly a serious look at midlife.

Braff plays an out-of-work actor who spends more time smoking weed than auditioning. When his father (Mandy Patinkin) announces he has cancer and can no longer pay for Braff and Kate Hudson's children's Jewish private school education, Braff decides to home school them.

This leads to much soul searching and rediscovering. Not necessarily as good as I thought it could be, this little movie is indeed worth watching.

***1/2 out of ***** stars

Obvious Child

This flick is a mix of Louie and Ed Burns' rom-coms. With major social commentary on abortion mixed in (with conservative groups the Heritage Foundation and Family Research Council chiming in against it).

I love star Jenny Slate for her roles in TV's The Kroll Show. She is far less wacky here, playing a comedian who loses her boyfriend before setting out on some binge drinking that results in a drunken encounter that gets her pregnant. Bouts of sweetness ensue with her stranger paramour, even if the bounds of believability are stretched with their continuous random sightings of each other.

Consider it devoting the time of just more than two episodes of Girls, which seems to be getting painfully annoying in its third season (should I even attempt to keep going into season four?).

***1/2 out of ***** stars

Inside Llewyn Davis

This is the one that really surprised me of this bunch. Nominated for best picture last year, I'm finding it harder and harder as time goes by to remember anything about it. I usually love the Coen Brothers, but Inside Llewyn Davis is particularly uninteresting.

It starts promisingly. Oscar Davis plays the title character. He is a folk singer who has lost the duo partner that brought him minor fame. But nobody likes his new solo stuff. The movie is fairly captivating during the first half in Greenwich Village, but it collapses into veery-slow meaningless by the point Llewyn road trips to Chicago with John Goodman, in a sadly pointless performance.

I really wanted to like this, but really didn't. It might have something to do with my stunning lack of interest in Bob Dylan (I know you're not supposed to say that out-loud) and this post-Dylan take on artistry.

**1/2 out of ***** stars

The Skeleton Twins

This is another big disappointment of two actors I really like. Perhaps the world in not ready for Saturday Night Live stars playing depressed suicidal twins.

The lack of humor is the most painful point. And why any scriptwriters would think audiences would care about these two losers is almost as amazing as it actually being green-lighted. I guess they thought Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig's double likability would save it, but they can't.

Like a really bad version of Robert Downey Jr.'s exploits in Less Than Zero.

** out of ***** stars

Sunday, February 8, 2015

10 Interesting Things About Pete Townshend Before The Who Hit It Big

(from pages 1-78 of Who I Am by Pete Townshend)

1. Townshend's father was a clarinetist and saxophonist with a "prototypical British swing band" called the Squadronaires, which I think is pretty cool because one of the best bands I was ever in (full of "brooding and swirling psychedelia," according to this link I just found in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch) was called Birmingham Squadron.

2. Pete at seven referred to his mom as an unreliable vamp. His dad was drunk one night and told him the facts of life and that a man does a kind of pee into the woman. Pete later told this to a friend who was horrified that everybody originated from urine.

3. Pete's dad wrote "Unchained Melody," which was not a hit but was covered multiple times by other successful bands. When he saw young women flocking to his dad and fellow musicians, he too became set on becoming a performing musician when he grew up. Soon thereafter he saw "Rock Around the Clock with Bill Haley" at the movies and fell in love with rock 'n roll.

4. He thought Elvis was a corny chump. But he had somehow missed earlier releases like "That's Alright Mama" and "Heartbreak Hotel," only being introduced to The King's music through later releases such as "Hound Dog" and "Love Me Tender," both of which he hated.

5. Pete started his first band when he was 12, a skiffle group called the Confederates. John Entwistle was in the band on trumpet and Pete enjoyed his sense of humor.

6. Pete knew of a classmate named Roger Daltry, who had once been expelled for smoking. He first saw Roger after he had won a playground fight with a Chinese boy. Pete called out that Roger was a dirty fighter and Roger confronted him and forced him to take it back. He also saw Roger walking around school with an exotic white electric guitar he made himself. His band was called the detours and they played country-western songs at parties.

7. Early in 1963, Pete smoked his first pot and had sex for the first time on the same night. By later that year, in December 1963, his band the Detours found themselves opening for none other then the Rolling Stones. Pete saw Keith Richards stretching before the show by spinning his arms like a windmill. Keith didn't do it again the next time Pete saw him, so Pete adopted that move for his patented windmill. The band also opened for the Kinks. On Valentine's Day 1964, after Entwistle discovered that another band was already called the Detours, they decided to become the Who, even though Pete initially suggested they become the Hair.

8. When Entwistle became one of Marshall's first customers, Pete became irritated that his speakers were being drowned out by the bass. So he bought a couple of amps, one being a Fender Bassman, which I have a particular fondness for. That was the same amp I used to power my bass playing in 1990s bands like Birmingham Squadron and my guitar playing in Monotremes. That thing seriously put out some volume (Pete must have really been loud since it was only one of two he used on stage beginning in 1964), but I was also always impatiently waiting for the tubes to warm up when I turned it on.

9. After auditioning several drummers, including Mitch Mitchell of later fame with Jimi Hendrix, Keith Moon materialized. He was instantly perfect. He had been playing with a band called the Beachcombers and was a big fan of California beach music (check out his solo cover of "Don't Worry Baby"). Moon had taken lessons from the drummer of Screaming Lord Sutch, which was a novelty band and is likely the main origin of Moon's hilarious stage antics, such as pointing his sticks skyward.

10. The Who, renamed The High Numbers for a short time, were mostly playing R&B covers. Their handlers began urging them that they needed original material. So Pete sat and listened to albums he loved and tried to determine what all this music was making him feel inside. He just kept coming back to the thought that "I can't explain" any of it. That became the basis for the second song he ever wrote (and arguably my favorite of all Who songs). He would often write about music in his songs, but over the coming weeks, he rewrote "I Can't Explain" to be more about love and to sound tight like the Kinks.