Friday, February 27, 2009

American Idol Season 8 -- random thoughts following Semifinals, Part II

At first I couldn't see the reason or logic behind expanding the semi-finals from 24 to 36 competitors, only to give them one chance to prove themselves or go home. Two weeks in Hollywood, several stages of cuts, and many an agonizing decision in order to trim the pool to 36, only to toss out two-thirds of them on the basis of ninety seconds of singing in front of a live audience. It seemed unfair. At least with the old system (eliminating two guys and two girls each week for three weeks), there was wiggle room for mistakes and second chances, opportunities for dark horse candidates to emerge through slow and steady improvement, and time for the favourites to build extra momentum heading into the finals.

This week, I started to see the light and appreciate the new format. It puts the focus squarely on the strongest performers. The long odds of moving on (ostensibly 25%) make the prize that much more prestigious. It's like a sports league in which only a small number of teams advance to the playoffs, versus a league where half of the teams make it. But with the old semifinal format, the focus was on the worst contestants and the mediocrities who were barely good enough to scrape by from week to week, whereas the strong performers simply advanced each week with relatively little fanfare.

The hit/miss ratio in this year's semis have certainly helped justify the switch, as the strong singers have really stood out among a fairly sizable pile of terrible competitors who were swiftly and decisively outclassed. The people who were just on the bubble will get their rightful second chance at making the finals, provided the judges and producers are smart about choosing their picks for wild card week. They'd have to be idiots to screw up those choices, considering how much total crap we've seen from the first two groups, but stranger things have happened.

Paula Abdul is right: with four judges, the show starts to drag with 33% more chit-chat and post-song analysis. Although with two hours of programming to fill up each week (plus the even-more-stretched-out hour long results show), they've got to fill the time somehow. We'll see how they manage when we hit the one hour episodes. It's worth noting that other talent-based reality shows are able to handle the four-judge panel just fine, although it helps (such as with Canadian Idol) if they all repeat themselves (and each other) each week and make no attempt at serious criticism.

The judges sound foolish in criticizing people (e.g. Kris Allen, Matt Giraud) for "not being the same guy/girl we fell in love with during Hollywood week". I mean, what do they expect -- musical instruments are off-limits during the semi-finals, so they're in fact prohibited from being the performer they were doing Hollywood week. What a dumb rule that is. Why put them into the top 36, only to prevent them from showcasing the talents that got them there? Then again, this is the same show that encourages everyone to take risks, work on developing as an artist, and collaborate with the band on their arrangements every week, only to force the eventual final two to sing shlocky ballads for the finale, i.e. the most important show of the year.

Allison Iraheta may have advanced in a walk, but of course that's not saying much since she was the only girl whose performance didn't border on embarrassing and/or nearly unlistenable. Megan Corkrey has the look of a star but was horribly out of tune, something that the judges inexplicably failed to notice although I'm willing to chalk that up to ear fatigue and/or the need to say something halfway nice about somebody eventually. Allison has plenty of stage presence and I do love me the rocker chicks on American Idol, but the performance was nothing special. Her voice was badly strained during the chorus and the song seemed to overwhelm her. Maybe one-third of it was actual singing, the rest of it was lungs-blown screaming, and out-of-tune lungs-blown screaming at that. Still, I like the idea of a sixteen year old stoner chick wandering her way onto the set of American Idol and rocking out in hilariously bad clothes, so I'm happy she's in the finals.

If you still need convincing, compare Allison's version with Carrie Underwood's from Season 4. Listen to how her voice slams into the chorus and soars almost effortlessly above the band compared with Allison's overloaded effort. It was after this performance that Simon Cowell famously commented that Carrie would win AI and sell more records than any other Idol. His boldness was even more notable given that the finals had barely just begun -- it was the week of the top 11! Watching at the time, I was less surprised that he made that comment than I was at the fact that it was so obviously true, even at that early stage of the competition. To that point, she was the comely country singer with the best voice in the field, clearly headed to the top three or four and a serious threat to win. After she steamrolled her rock dude competition by slaying them at their own game, the it was simply a question of "what CAN'T she do??" and the other ten were simply along for the ride for the rest of the Carrie Underwood Show. Rock singers are now commonplace on Idol, but remember, that was the first season with actual rockers in the finals (Bo Bice, Constantine). The show was a lot more homogeneous in the first three seasons compared to now, sticking mainly to pop and R&B tunes, and the contestants rarely strayed outside their comfort zones. Then along came season four, with actual variety among the finalists and proper rock songs being sung among the glut of Mariah and Whitney impressions. A farm girl who had never flown on a plane or visited a big city in her life had absolutely no business pwning the rockers on their own turf and becoming the Mistress of All Genres. It was inexplicable, and yet it happened.

Speaking of Constantine Maroulis, Adam Lambert is merely his second coming, albeit with better hair and makeup. His voice drives me nuts, although I don't discount that he has the look of a star. The producers' favouritism this season couldn't be more obvious -- as it was with Danny Gokey, he's been given loads of TV time and a better-developed personal history compared to the average semi-finalist. Then he received the attention-grabbing show-closing time slot, and an inventive song arrangement that was perfectly suited to his talents, while everybody else had to settle for standard Wedding Band Muzak arrangements.

Nick Mitchell is simply the bomb, but as is usually the case whenever a new kind of performer appears on AI, he is ridiculed and dismissed as "not what we're looking for" or something to that effect. You know the drill -- Clay Aiken didn't look like a star, Taylor Hicks was a drunk uncle at a wedding, etc. Nick's closest precedent is probably Blake Lewis, who was also frequently told that he was a gimmicky performer and not a real singer. Blake had a good voice and was perfectly capable of doing straight-ahead singing when he wanted to. However, when you can showcase talents that nobody else can pull off, guaranteeing that you'll stand out from the crowd, why be conventional?

Monday, February 23, 2009

The forgotten gig part II

I said I couldn't believe it could happen even once, but one fine day, I browsing through some of my blog archives, and there it was: "oh f*** me, I saw Torche?!?!?"

What is happening here? Are there other, similar surprises that lay in store for me (I guess I'd be stupid to bet against it)? How can I turn this negative into a positive? OK, here's a nice little distraction to show that plenty of others suffer from acute forgetfulness.

Suede star attacks revival trend. Choice quote: "I'm obsessively opposed to nostalgia. I hate the idea of it. It doesn't work. And it doesn't interest with me at all."

Um, Bernard, you were in SUEDE for three years. The band that would have had little to say if not for a healthy dose of theft from early 1970's Bowie records. Then you tried to go prog. And what would you call The Tears? What about helping to kill the Black Kids' career dead by doing a sloppy production job that was all too similar to the sound of those early Suede records? I suppose Butler's comment makes some sense if you define "nostalgia" as "never playing one's older material", which would be quite the radical redefinition of the word, but regardless, he comes off sounding kind of stupid in this interview.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Kenny Larkin @ Barzilay; Contempo Festival Part I @ Levontin 7

This post is to document the most eclectic night out, music-wise, that I've had in quite a long time. It's an evening that began with avant garde solo violin played to a hushed seated crowd and ended with L'il Louis' "French Kiss" played at 6AM to a beer and adrenaline fueled dancefloor and a thunderstorm raging outdoors.

Nils Auckland squeezed a dazzling array of multitonal sounds from his violins, wrenching layers of drone from his instrument that would normally have no business leaping out of its strings. At times he played the violin almost as a percussion instrument, slapping his bow hard enough to knock both the frame and the strings of his violin, producing a half-wood block, half-staccato tone. At other times he played so quietly that the gentle hum of the air vents was threatening to drown out his playing. The venue staff turned the vents off. You'll never hear a crowded room get so quiet.

I wasn't really feeling Yoni Silver's solo bass clarinet performance, but the lo-tech light and shadow show helped to make up for it. Standing with his back to a white wall, illuminated by nothing but a hanging bulb to his right and a simple desk lamp on the floor in front of him, the gradual dimming and illuminating of these lights cast a playful array of shadows on the wall behind him. Just a man swaying with with his horn, both projected comically large on the surrounding walls.

Things got even better. Hilde Sophie Tapioord (sp?) took the night's prize for the most unexpected use of her instrument. She makes noise music that is partly constructed in real time from the processed sounds of her voice and her ... French horn! During her 30-minute onslaught, I had time to think about a lot of things, and one of them was the sadly underrated Ben Neill, who made some pretty cool ambient and downtempo music in the 90's with the help of his processed, specially prepared trumpet.

And then there was ZU, possibly the world's only sludge metal band that features baritone sax in place of guitar. Even though the band passed off their short set as a simple soundcheck for their proper gig the following night, you wouldn't believe the amount of Stooge-y primal sludge rock that can be constructed out of drums-bass-sax.

One hour and one venue change later, the scene for Kenny Larkin's highly anticipated set looked nothing like I expected. It turned out that there was some spillover from the concert that took place earlier in the evening, for the crowd was a mix of club kids and glammed up guys and gals who were dressed for a somewhat fancier evening. These strange juxtapositions resulted in a fairly subdued and confused mood on the dancefloor, almost right up until the moment that Larkin started to play. But finally, the riff raff was cleared out and techno mayhem began in earnest, as Larkin worked a masterful three hour set that was classic Detroit, a set that kept the entire club nearly full right up until the day's first light.

Monday, February 16, 2009

The 33 1/3 Shortlist

The list is here, and my proposal for one of my favourite albums of the 1970's, "Free To Be ... You and Me" by Marlo Thomas and Friends, is not on it. This was hardly a surprise for me, as I was fairly dissatisfied with what I wrote and knew that my ideas weren't fleshed out with enough clarity to make for a high quality proposal. But it's 2009, the year in which I try to stop micromanaging my writing and return to being more loose and spontaneous, so I really wanted to submit something, at least to put my conscience to rest. I can easily tolerate trying and failing (even with what was far from my best work), as opposed to not trying and not failing (which of course, means that you don't succeed either). But never mind me ... congrats to all whose proposals are still in the running, and best of luck to everyone!

I wanted to write about why so-called "children's music" is almost completely absent from all serious music criticism. Obviously this has a lot to do with the fact that people grow out of that music and never revisit that it again when they are older, but I see no a priori reason why this should be so. People grow out of music and can learn to love it again (and in a different way). This is actually fairly common! I really believe in this idea, or at least some idea about this much-loved but rarely mentioned album, so maybe next time (if there is a next time), or maybe I'll write about it elsewhere (such as here).

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Obama's playlist

This is really old news by now, but I had this story bookmarked for a while and still wanted to write a few words about it. In the weeks before Obama's inauguration, CBC Radio Two held a poll to determine the 49 songs that best define Canada, all the better for the then-incoming President to know what we're all about. Putting aside the somewhat pathetic loser mentality without which we as Canadians wouldn't feel the need to create these "America, pleeeeeease pay attention to us!!" childish cries for attention, the resulting list is actually pretty awesome. I'm not going to complain about what could have been included, because the songs that did make it are all fairly special and represent a solid cross section of Canadian talent from coast to coast. And considering the President's appreciation for music collecting compared to his last few predecessors, I can even begin to imagine that he'd enjoy having a 3CD box set of these songs in the White House music room!

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Country Joe McDonald, "Feel Like I'm Fixin' To Die"

I've seen bits and pieces of "Woodstock" countless times, in large part because my Dad used to watch it regularly, either on tape or when it appeared on TV. I've seen the entire movie, all the way through, maybe once. It's just so bloody long and after thirty minutes you more than get the point, so it's a film that's best absorbed in mini-doses, or at least until your favourite artist or performance comes on screen.

Country Joe McDonald's "Feel Like I'm Fixin' To Die" is a song that I had always semi-dismissed as one of those goofy hippie clapalong tunes. I appreciated its catchiness and slick humour, but, for lack of a better description, I didn't take the song seriously. To me, it might as well have been a drunken folk ditty or a children's poem. So, while catching parts of "Woodstock" on TV this past weekend, I was bit surprised to find myself getting a bit emotional during Country Joe's performance, particularly during this particularly fantastic, "Spartacus"-like moment about 2:00 into this clip, as the camera pulls back and shows the entire crowd gradually rising to their feet, a portrait of one singer and thousands of his fans as they slowly win over ten times that number.

That moment that wasn't only about enjoying oneself by singing and clapping and stomping in a field, it was also a political statement. Lots of people complain that the protest song has all but disappeared. Political turbulence is a constant, so why won't musical artists stick out their necks anymore, and even on the odd occasion when someone does try to take a stand, why does the music not make a long-lasting impact on the record-buying public? The answer, as evidenced by this short clip of Country Joe's performance, couldn't be any more clear. The crowd at Woodstock bought into his message because the threats were real. Three million American soldiers served in Vietnam, and over 50 000 of them died. Of course, the draft was then in effect. This wasn't something taking place half a world away that could be safely ignored at home -- when you know it could be your ass getting shipped off to the jungle at the drop of a hat, you pay attention to the issues at hand and keep a careful track of what is going on. You remain devoted to the cause as long as there is a threat to your personal health, safety and sanity. You don't show up the latest cause du jour on your campus in order to feel like a local hero rebel MF who is ready to take on The Man, only to forget about the whole thing three weeks later once CNN loses interest.

This is why the current day protest movement is vacuous and empty, this is why it has lost the power to induce meaningful change, and this is why no musical artists will waste their time taking a stand for anything. Why would a government official or a musician choose to take a risk when nobody will be paying attention by the end of the month? In such a climate, these movements will remain artistically bankrupt as well. Humour, irony, sarcasm -- the sorts of literary devices that make for quality poetry with a deeper, subtler richness of meaning -- are off the table when the audience has only a superficial understanding of the relevant issues. Or in other words, they won't get the jokes. Thus, every protest descends into silly catchphrases and the types of automaton talking points that people rightfully abhor when they're trotted out on conservative news shows. "Bring home the troops from X." "Stop the violence in Y." Attempt anything more complicated than that and you risk going over the audience's head completely.

And who wouldn't get worn out after a few weeks of 100% serious messages with 0% fun? South Park's Mr. Mackey is a caricature for a reason. "Feel Like I'm Fixin' To Die" is ghoulish and fun, something that the modern protest movement can't afford to be without confusing its many transient constituents.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Ben Klock, "One"

If there's been a better album of hard, dark, isolationist techno released in the past couple of years, I've yet to hear it. Depending on your viewpoint (half full/half empty?), virtually every track is a mood killer (guaranteed to kill a happy buzz and turn the corners of any living room or club into a damp, murky place) or a mood maker (see previous comment). In "Check For Pulse", Klock revisits Chain Reaction-style watery dub techno, where the ambiance between the notes breathes on its own, becoming essentially the lead instrument on the track. But there's a lot more to this album than riding along with the dub techno revival. "Cargo" is dour and acerbic, recalling Aphex Twin's Polygon Window at its finest with its airy synth tones drifting in and out of the mix over a bludgeoning backbeat, "OK" is the complete and utter mindkiller, a dubstep/techno masterpiece that starts with a stomach-churning bassline and haunting, heavily filtered, looped vocal ("ain't no happiness, ain't no sadness"). It only gets better once the beat kicks in, turning the track into an irresistibly danceable piece of maudlin horror techno.