Sunday, October 31, 2010

Grading "Glee" -- Season 02, Episode 05 -- Rocky Horror Picture Glee Show!

I haven't had a chance to watch this episode until now, but today is Halloween, so it feels totally appropriate.

Audio recordings of the songs from this episode have been available for a couple of weeks, but I managed to avoid them completely. I never had any interest in hearing "Glee" recordings outside of the shows themselves, so there was no reason to change my habits now. Take away the costumes and the staging and the dance numbers that you can only get while watching the show and what do you have? Cover versions that are usually embarrassing compared with the originals, and with the campiest possible production to boot. Speaking of costumes and staging, in which episode could that possibly be more important than this one? So there were plenty of reasons to hold out on hearing the songs.

A number of commentators have complained that they can't possibly see how a RHPS-themed episode of "Glee" could possibly manage to shoehorn the songs into the show's plot. Well, the first few times I saw RHPS, I didn't like it. It was weird, sexy in a somewhat grotesque way, and had some memorable characters, but the movie made absolutely no sense. Eventually I learned to ignore the fact that there was no plot and an idiotic ending, and to just enjoy the movie's quirks. And the songs, they grow on you, of course. As for "Glee" ... hmmm ... the plots make no sense ... the songs drop in from out of nowhere with almost no connection to the dialogue ... quirky, memorable characters ... a flair for OTT theatrics ... it's a perfect fit! So for those of you who don't understand how songs from RHPS can possibly fit into an episode of "Glee", I mean, have you SEEN Rocky Horror Picture Show??

"Dammit Janet". B. This one was just getting good when it was suddenly cut off (or in plot terms, by Mr. Schue having to leave the room). As you'd expect, Finn and Rachel did a great job of capturing the basic essence of Brad and Janet, best described as "geeky deers caught in the headlights".

"Hot Patootie". B+. A shockingly great performance from John Stamos, who really earned his spot on the cast during this episode. Who knew that he could pull off a choreographed scene like that? And Mr. Schue's jealous, fuming looks (mimicking the reaction of Frank-N-Furter to Stamos' Eddie from the movie) were brilliant.

Sweet Transvestite. D+. Amber Riley has only one gear: diva. Lost in this performance were all the multifaceted elements that made Tim Curry's portrayal of Frank-N-Furter so great. Frank-N-Furter is a freak, a pervert, a sleazeball with schizophrenic mood changes (often within the same song). He's sexy only in a car crash sort of way, and he's not the kind of party animal you want to spend any time with because he's too unpredictable, and everything about the way he sings suggests that he might fly off the handle at any moment. None of these subtleties were there in Riley's interpretation, instead, she simply played him like a character from the "Lady Marmalade" video.

"Touch-a, Touch-a, Touch-a, Touch Me". A. Talking about Jayma Mays' singing in this scene would be missing the point (after all, the Janet role doesn't require much in the way of singing). She nailed the mannerisms, the timing, and the facial expressions. Toss in the one-liners from the rest of the cast and Santana and Brittany's frolicking, and you've got a classic.

The Time Warp. C+. Of course you knew they'd do this one, and of course it had to be in full costume. Too bad this was the only scene featuring Chris Colfer singing as Riff Raff, because I think he'd do a good job with that character. The performance was fairly average -- nothing technically wrong with it, but it felt flat, uninventive, and strictly by-the-numbers.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Best of Suede

This new best-of will be released in a couple of weeks, hot on the heels of a mini-reunion of sorts for the band. Brett Anderson was interviewed yesterday in The Guardian, and isn't it disappointing when your musical heroes turn out to be just as small-minded as your dad's?

Quietness seems inimical to Suede: Anderson misses the danger and fierceness his band used to thrive on. "I do find it weird that the last 10 years hasn't thrown up a new definitive genre. It seems that music is here to placate now, rather than provoke. Maybe a sense of apathy has crept in, or people's lives are too comfortable. No one wants to inspire extremity, as we used to do."

And there you have it, musical fogies from every generation complain about the music that the kids are listening to these days. "Things were so much better in the old days, when my band was on top! That was when music was real." For most of their career, Suede were only too happy to "placate" their fans by sticking to well-established genres. Suede were a number of things, but risk-takers they were not. They never strayed too far from a safe, signature sound.

That said, Suede have had a great post-mortem career. Nobody wants to look back and feel embarrassed about the music they used to like. The definitive history of Suede could have been written as it happened. They're still viewed as pioneers who helped kickstart a new wave of British bands in the 90's. The megahype media blitz that preceded the release of their debut single and continued all throughout '92 and '93 is still the blueprint for making and breaking new bands in the UK. If anything, Suede are more respected for that today, because they survived the media onslaught, lived up to their hype, and managed to have a long and successful career.

Most fairweather fans of the band would also tell you now (and would have told you then) that the band peaked in their first two years, or IOW, things weren't the same after Bernard Butler left. Judging from the track listing on their new Best Of, Brett Anderson believes it too. The first disc (the "hits") is dominated by their early singles, while their later albums are covered much more sparingly. And the second disc (b-sides and album tracks) is totally dominated by Anderson/Butler tracks. Even casual fans knew that the b-sides were essential to the Suede story, and anyone who swooned over "My Dark Star" or "My Insatiable One" in the mid-90's can rest assured that nobody's opinion has changed about that.

I personally believe that Suede peaked with the "Stay Together" single, which was released right before Butler left the band. They never seemed quite as invincible ever again. However, their strongest album, on a track-by-track basis, was their third, "Coming Up". But if you can only afford to buy one Suede album, it should be "Sci-Fi Lullabies". A b-sides history of Suede is probably even more genuine and more essential than their a-sides history -- it brings you closer to the soul of the band and the reasons why so many people loved their music.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Grading "Glee" -- Season 02, Episode 04

This week's episode was a breath of fresh air, not least because it threw my usual grading system out of whack. Obviously not every performance was meant to be a home run, and some of them were intended to be noticeably flawed or outright bad. And it was nice for the songs to actually figure into the plot of the show for a change. Rather than announcing every song with a "here's what I'm feeling right now about X, expressed vaguely via a tangential connection to the following song title", there was a clear reason for each song choice, and the outcome of the performance tied directly into the plot.

"Don't Go Breaking My Heart". C. Totally vanilla, but it was supposed to be. It makes perfect sense that Finn and Rachel would believe their saccharine (and obvious version) of the Elton John classic to be the most adorable thing ever, whereas the rest of us (and the rest of the characters in the glee club) would have a reaction that was closer to a dry retch. Their mediocrity makes you take notice of now much more interesting the other performances were, which is great, because far too many episodes of "Glee" have involved Rachel and Finn getting the keynote performance that the whole episode revolves around.

"River Deep Mountain High". B+. Great energy, great singing, and I'm a sucker for Spector (although this has never been high on my list of Spector favourites).

"Le Jazz Hot". A-. I can't remember a "Glee" episode that did a better job of letting the actors play to their strengths. Let's see ... we've got a cast full of musical theatre veterans who specialize in singing jazz standards and show tunes ... hey, let's turn them loose on jazz standards and show tunes! Probably Chris Colfer's best performance ever on this show.

"Sing". B+. As far as flawed performances go, this one is as good as you'll likely ever see on "Glee". Here you've got two characters (and actors) who are really good dancers but aren't strong singers. So they picked a song that they could get over on the strength of their dancing, facial expressions, and comedic timing (which is more of a dance skill that a singing skill). And since the song is about a guy who can't really sing, the song title (and lyrics) actually tie into the show's plot. This one performance did more to develop the characters of Mike and Tina than the last several episodes put together.

"With You I'm Born Again". B. The performance itself is terrible, maybe a D+. But as a performance that was supposed to be terrible, it was a winner. The costumes, the double meaning of "born again", the fact that it was a perfectly believable performance by Finn and Rachel (you can really imagine those characters thinking they'd hit upon a real winner), all of it was brilliantly executed. The grade would have been higher if they'd gone even more OTT with it.

"Lucky". C+. Cutesy to the point of near unwatchability, but again, that was the whole point. Obviously this by-the-numbers Jason Mraz cover (it seems as if Sam isn't capable of doing much else) didn't have a legit chance of winning the competition on its own merits, but again, it won believably. Any glee club member could reasonably think that some of the others were taken in by its simplicity and charm, and in that sense it was good enough to win, but not bad enough to make anyone suspect that its win was the result of shenanigans.

Artie and Brittany's "breakup" scene. F. I honestly laughed during this scene, I thought that one of them was putting the other on until the scene suddenly ended. Are we supposed to believe that three brain-celled Brittany has suddenly developed a conscience? Are we supposed to feel sorry for Artie and his dropped-like-a-bomb-out-of-the-clear-blue-sky angst over the workings of his dong? This was easily the worst scene in an episode with almost no weak scenes.

"Happy Days are Here Again/"Get Happy". B+. See earlier comment about allowing stage veterans to sing to their strengths. Bravo!

Friday, October 15, 2010

Matt Elliott, "Songs" Trilogy; Third Eye Foundation, "The Dark"

Sometimes a genre of music gets named for the city in which the scene is based. "Seattle", "Philadelphia", "Munich" ... each of them is both a place and an adjective. The city of Bristol is synonymous with not one but two scenes -- which were happening simultaneously, no less!

In the early and mid-90's, Bristol was the trip-hop hub of the UK, with Portishead, Massive Attack, and Tricky all enjoying international success. The other scene was actually larger (in terms of the number of bands gaining prominence) and more of a proper "scene" (in terms of collaboration and cross-pollination between bands). The other scene was the Bristol lo-fi scene, and although its popular profile was far lower, if you were a fan of shoegaze, ambient, and the intersection between Slint and B-grade horror film soundtracks, then this was the Bristol scene better suited for you. And at the top of the quality heap was Matt Elliott's one-man act: Third Eye Foundation.

Unlike most of the other Bristol-based bands, who had their set style and tended to bludgeon you into submission with it (e.g. Flying Saucer Attack, Crescent, Movietone), TEF was always a bit more unpredictable. In 1996, a lot of people were buzzing over news coming out of the tight-lipped My Bloody Valentine camp that implied that new drum 'n' bass-influenced material would be released by the end of the year. As if on cue, TEF's "Semtex" appeared and seemed to have beaten MBV to the punch. Its opening track, "Sleep", belied its title by exploding to life in a swarm of howling guitars and furious breakbeats. But whereas a lot of shoegaze music was rooted in pop music (albeit pop music that was drenched in a beehive of high frequencies) and pleasant, singsong vocals (albeit vocals that were sad and sighing and often incomprehensible), none of those qualities were present in TEF's music. His version of shoegaze evoked feelings of fright and terror, with guitar noise that imitated howling, window rattling, gale-force winds. It was as frightful and unsettling as the black-and-white photo of a dead and decomposing animal that "graced" the cover of "Semtex". However, only the first third of the album sounded like this -- the first two of "Semtex"'s six tracks. In the middle third he toned down the noise and went for a more dubbed-out sound, and the final third was more or less ambient. TEF could have stuck to the easily classifiable vision of a DnB MBV (a sound which remains fairly unexplored and would sound fresh even today) but he chose to rapidly evolve ... so rapidly, in fact, that he'd moved on before his debut album was even finished. Why give up on a winning formula? Too much of a good thing? Going out on a high note?

My favourite TEF album was always the second, "Ghosts", whose opening track "What To Do But Cry" begins with a sample from Lou Reed's "Metal Machine Music" and just ramps up the noise and horror from there. He topped it with the second track, the endearingly-titled "Corpses As Bedmates", which is still one of the most frightening and overbearing pieces of music I've ever heard. It's as if Elliott knew that his music couldn't get more extreme than that, because he never attempted to make anything like it ever again. "Ghosts" quiets down from that point on, turning into "Semtex"'s spookier twin. Where "Semtex" tried to jolt and shock you, "Ghosts" was more about the suspense between the killings. Again, the cover sets the mood -- once again in black and white, it shows a glistening lake and odd, glowing lights hovering the mountains in the distance. Later TEF albums weren't nearly as heavy, both inside and outside -- the cover art turned toward a medieval church painting theme -- and although the music remained serious, it was no longer threatening.

By 2000's "Little Lost Soul", TEF had settled more comfortably into a kind of quirky, cinematic DnB (heavy on the cinema, light on the DnB). Then came his final, most unexpected about face. "Lost" is undoubtedly the emotional centrepiece of "Little Lost Soul". It opens with a sad, evocative acoustic guitar melody, which are easily the calmest and gentlest moments to appear on any TEF album. TEF's music had always been the antithesis of calm -- even the ambient moments brought out feelings of isolation and nervousness, they were never, ever calm. The drums are refugees from a smoke-filled smooth jazz club that somehow wandered onto a TEF record, and ghostly voices repeat nearly unintelligible phrases, looped ad infinitum. You wait and wait for the song to explode into a blizzard of crazy beats, but it never happens. "Lost" passes through a couple of achingly beautiful different phases, but the punchline never comes. "Lost" is the embodiment of the album title "Little Lost Soul". It's a lonely, disorienting, drunken sailor's lament. For the first time, there are voices on a TEF album that actually sound human, you feel sorry for whoever or whatever it is that is wandering around lost. For all intents and purposes, this was the moment when Matt Elliott became a folk musician, and one more time, once he'd hit on yet another magic formula, it was time to move on. The next year, he retired the Third Eye Foundation moniker, supposedly forever. However, "Lost" would serve as the template for the next ten years of Matt Elliott's career.


After a couple of years hiatus, Elliott returned in 2003 with his debut solo album, "The Mess We Made". It was a TEF album in all but the name, pretty much continuing on from where "Lost" left off. But it too refuses to run in place. By the sixth track, "The Sinking Ship Song", he's abandoned nearly all of the eerie weirdness that characterized TEF. The jaunty guitar playing and yawning, drunken chorus defy you to listen without swaying back and forth in your chair. The final (and best) track, "Forty Days", crystallizes the folksy undercurrents that had been lurking beneath the surface for most of the album. Close your eyes and you can see the Klezmer musicians tuning up and starting to play.

Now deeply entrenched in his brand of balladeering and Eastern European folk and, Elliott released the first album in what would turn out to be a trilogy, "Drinking Songs". Hardly anyone noticed, including me. I only heard "Drinking Songs" for the first time a few months ago. I love "The Mess We Made" -- it was on my best of the 2000's shortlist, getting cut once the list was down to about fifty or so albums -- but "Drinking Songs" is very likely better. The songwriting is tighter, with more creative and complex arrangements that frequently incorporate a richer spectrum of instruments that includes piano, strings and brass. In the early days of TEF, it seemed as though he was in it to stop your heart. Now, he'd come full circle -- his new repetoire of songs were more likely to break your heart. The final track on "Drinking Songs" is a bipolar throwback to the TEF days, a twenty minute largely breakbeat-driven megamix of a number of themes from "The Mess We Made". Somehow it fits together with the solemn mood of the rest of the album.

"Failing Songs" is Elliott going full-on Tom Waits. He relies more on his own worn-out voice to carry the songs, which feature the kind of odd, clanging instrumentation that Waits' music is known for. "Howling Songs" is mellower, easier to swallow, and Elliott's voice tends more toward the style of a Leonard Cohen. Supposedly this was the first album that Elliott recorded in an actual studio, and it shows because the music sounds noticeably slicker and brighter. Despite a number of brilliant moments, the latter two albums in the trilogy don't quite scale to the heights of "The Mess We Made" or "Drinking Songs". The three album set was rereleased in a single package earlier this year, entitled "Songs". Lumped together, it can be a bit heavy and wearying -- not the kind of box set you'll want to hear in one sitting. But the three albums make perfect sense as a trilogy. On each album, Elliott picked his vision and stuck to it from beginning to end, something he never managed to do (or steadfastly refused to do) as Third Eye Foundation. Until now.

Maybe we should have seen it coming when Elliott revived his old standby, the dead and decomposing B&W cover art, for the release of "Howling Songs". The unexpected return of Third Eye Foundation is accompanied by a new album, "The Dark", and from the first note to the last, there's no doubt who you're listening to -- it's unmistakably a TEF album. You could say the same about Portishead when they rose from the dead two years ago with "Third", and as was the case with "Third", the creator behind "The Dark" might be easily recognizable but the album is no simple retread of what worked in the past. What's strange is that TEF and Portishead headed up non-overlapping Bristol scenes in 1996 and couldn't have seemed more distant from each other. Fifteen years later, they actually might be converging toward a common ideal -- they don't sound alike, but they've never sounded more alike, if you know what I mean.

"The Dark" is the first TEF album that flows together as one piece, it's five songs bleed into each other as one long forty minute uninterrupted performance. "Anhedonia" rumbles to life with a slow, heavy dub reggae beat and a smearing of haunting noises in the background. What I always loved about TEF, post-"Semtex", was that you could never really pick out any source instruments. I heard noises that might be a grisly blend of guitar, voice, found sound, and who knows what else, all left outside to decompose into a unrecognizable mess like the the animals that were photographed on some of his album covers. "Anhedonia" is like trademark TEF -- "TEF: In Dub". But "Standard Deviation" is even heavier, slamming you with even thicker bass and even more horrifying noises.

"Pareidolia" reintroduces the breakbeats, and they are mad and furious, starting relatively slow, building in speed toward the middle of the track, and then gradually slowing again. Again, you can make comparisons to the likes of AFX's "Hangable Auto Bulb", but "Pareidolia" isn't a freak show. You can't possibly imagine hearing this music a bunch of grinning animated wooden dolls swirling around your head. "Closure" is even more intense, and for some reason I'm reminded of Brian Eno's "Hear Come the Warm Jets", with its thick palate of fuzzy instruments and arrhythmic, inconsistent drumming. I'm not sure what the story is behind that song, but it's as if the musicians played in really large field at super high volume but standing a couple of hundred metres from each other, with recording mic placed somewhere in the centre of their formation. Everybody strains to hear everyone else, and everyone reacts on a time delay to what everyone else is doing. Before I'd even looked at the song titles, I had a strong sense of finality when hearing "Closure", it really does feel like the sad end of something unspeakable, of something horrible and frightening.

The final track is the relatively brisk "If You Treat Us All Like Terrorists We Will Become Terrorists" and as an exercise in concocting a four-minute breakbeat song with an eye-catching title that could be released as "The Dark"'s only single, it's a good one. It doesn't really fit with everything else, but it's the last song so it doesn't interrupt the album's flow. This also means you cold skip it if you choose to, and pretend that the aptly titled "Closure" is the real final song, but you shouldn't because it really is quite good.

"The Dark" is relentless, it builds and builds and its cohesiveness are what separate it from every other TEF album. It takes on the heaviness of dub, the white-knuckle intensity of metal, and barely gives you any rest from its terrifying palate of sounds. Two years ago, who could have possibly guessed that Portishead would reappear from out of nowhere and make the best album ever to come out of the Bristol scene? And who could have possibly guessed that Third Eye Foundation would one up them in 2010, returning with an even better album that's not only the best album to ever come out of Bristol, but one of the best albums of the past several years?

Friday, October 08, 2010

Grading "Glee" -- Season 02, Episode 03

Plot-wise, I appreciate that they tackled the very serious issues of G-d and grilled cheese, and I even appreciate the variety of music that was on display (a number of genres spanning several decades). But the performances themselves? Uh ...

"Only the Good Die Young". B-. Like all of the Puck-led songs, this was another of his solid but unspectacular attempts to channel Jason Mraz.

"I Look to You". C+. Just average, just Amber Riley trying to show off her voice in the same way she does on every song. Wake me up when she tries something different.

"Papa Can You Hear Me?". B. Lea Michele can knock it out of the park when she's allowed to go full-tilt on Barbra (like in last year's mid-season finale). This was good, but sleepy, and I was actually kind of glad when it was finally over.

"I Wanna Hold Your Hand". B-. By far the most interesting experiment of the week. Re-configuring the Beatles' giddy boyish fantasy into a ballad about treasuring childhood memories with one's father was ... a bit creepy and ghoulish, TBH. Teenage lust remixed into pastry parties and walks through the cemetery to the grave of Kurt's mother? It was brave, I'll give them that.

"Losing My Religion". D-. Things I hate about "Glee" -- using songs out of context based around the title of the song and not its content. "Losing My Religion" has nothing to do with religion, it's southern slang for (approximately) "I'm at the end of my rope", in case you didn't know. So it was ridiculous to have the glee club stage a minor rebellion over Finn singing an "anti-religion" song. But the worst part of the song was the tuneless, lifeless, shapeless vocals. "Losing My Religion" doesn't have a strong vocal melody, Michael Stipe's singing is all about the tone of his voice and his enunciation. "Glee" should never attempt these types of pop songs. At least Puck knows not to extend himself by not straying beyond Billy Joel and Neil Diamond.

"Bridge Over Troubled Water". C. This song has been covered in a million different ways, and this was no better or worse than any of them. The definition of average.

"One of Us". F. Let's finish the show with a dab of spiritual revelation and waste of the few might-have-been-really-touching Sue Sylvester moments by soundtracking it with one of the worst songs of all time. The fact that someone took Joan Osborne's puerile lyrics seriously and used them to close a religion-based episode of a major TV show makes me worry about what's going through the brains behind "Glee" sometimes.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Grading "Glee" -- Season 02, Episode 02


Whose idea was it to focus an entire episode of "Glee" around the entire cast starring in remakes of Britney Spears videos brought on by hallucinations from generous doses of nitrous oxide given by John Stamos? Can we give this person a prize, something like an open-ended contract to keep writing for this show until it goes off the air or until they actually "deliver" on the shark-jumping Christopher Cross tribute episode?

Maybe I was wrong last year when I wrote that they'd better not overdo it with tribute episodes this season.

"I'm a Slave 4 U". A. What better way to use Heather Morris (an amateur actor/singer but a great dancer) than to doll her up as Britney and turn her loose to dance the bejeezus out of Brit's best ever single (complete with iconic snake dance from the 2001 MTV Video Awards). Finally, an episode of "Glee" where the dancers get to actually do something instead of being background characters who are rarely heard from. Wat better way to pull it off than during a Britney Spears week (i.e. real singing talent optional)? This was HOTTT. It doesn't get an A-plus because then I'd be claiming that this basically a perfect performance and one of the best two or three songs in the history of the show, and I'm not ready to do that yet because let's face it, it's still the start of the season and we wouldn't want everything to be downhill from here onward, would be?

"Me Against the Music". B. The chemistry between Madonna and Britney c. 2003 is difficult to pantomime, even with two hot make-believe cheerleaders. This was efficient and professional, but the sexuality felt somewhat forced.

"Hit Me One More Time". B. Lea Michele is a bit lost when she has to sing something as simple as this, and let's be honest, there is NO room for vocal calisthenics on most Britney Spears songs (and most definitely not on this song). Small bonus points for going against type with the not-so-innocent schoolgirl look.

"Stronger". C-. All the soap opera storylines from last season have vanished without a trace -- Quinn's pregnancy, Rachel's search for her mother, Mr. Schue's marriage falling apart, all of them are gone, undone. With the exception Rachel and Finn as a couple, we're back to where we were one year ago -- Artie likes Tina, Quinn is a Cheerio again, Finn is back on the football team, Mr. Schue likes Ms. Pillsbury, etc. And in yet another throwback to the start of last season, here's "Glee" grasping for novelty points by doing a dance number with the football team. There were a few interesting dance sequences, but that's about it. Surely they can think of something better to do with Artie than having him join the football team, which is a storyline I don't think anyone is buying.

"Toxic". B+. Remaking the song as a mid-tempo rock number = big win (I never did like the plastic production style and frantic pacing of the original). Any performance with Mr. Schuester tends to be great, especially if he's doing something embarrassing and/or inappropriate within the story (both apply here). And don't forget about the Charlie Chaplin hats! Well done, Glee.

"It's a Britney Spears sex riot!!!!". A+ line. Jane Lynch is taking it to another level this season.

"The Only Exception". B-. I'd never heard this song before (by the band Paramore), and it sounded OK I guess. I didn't understand why they tried to pass it off as some big weepy moment to end all weepy moments. That massive overstatement kinda ruined the song for me.