Monday, May 30, 2011

American Idol Season 10 Finale

Outside of a few bits and pieces after they reached the top six, I didn't watch "Idol" at all this season. Call it a case of Idol burnout, or getting my TV music fix from "Glee", or being less than excited about the judging changes. I kept thinking I'd latch on once they got to Hollywood week, or to the Finals, or when it came down to the best six. It never happened.

But miss out on the star-studded finale? No way!

Top thirteen, "Born This Way". I already knew who the winner was before watching this finale, so this is as good a place as any to wonder what it's going to take for a girl to win this show again. The last few seasons have seen a number of incredibly talented women fall short, and if we've reached the point where arguably the most talented 16-year old female in the history of AI can't beat a baby-faced male country crooner, then what's it going to take?

Odd, odd, choice for a group number, and they never sounded like they were on the same page.

James Durbin and Judas Priest, "Living After Midnight"/"Breaking the Law". I kept waiting for the audience closeup of a jealous Adam Lambert (although he did get to perform with KISS last year), but it didn't happen. This was seriously awesome though, and James couldn't have looked more at home up there.

Jacob Lusk, Kirk Franklin, and Gladys Knight, "I Smile". There's a lot of George Huff in Jacob Lusk -- fantastic vocal tone, brimming with energy, a gifted ability to suck a crowd into his performance, but technically inconsistent (especially in the lower register) with not insignificant intonation problems ("pitchy" in AI-speak). Besides that, Gladys Knight looked fantastic (I'm putting that out there -- I have no idea how much work she's had done).

Jack Black and Casey Abrams, "Fat Bottomed Girls". With their goofy looks, unconventional (in pop music) voices, and undeniable onstage chemistry, Jack Black and Casey Abrams were born to perform together. They could probably head out tomorrow on a tour of mid-sized clubs in college towns and make decent coin. That said, both of these guys suck donkey balls and I never want to see this performance ever again.

Top thirteen girls (minus Lauren Alaina) and Beyonce, "Beyonce Medley". Listening to them sing, I can understand why they were all eliminated so early even though this is one hell of a collection of eye candy -- easily the best in AI history. Haley Reinhart is the exception, having lasted until the top three, although judging by her lackadaisical vocal effort here (with the exception of her two line solo in "If I Were a Boy") it seems she doesn't feel the need to lower herself to singing with the other girls. A classic case of letting AI fame go to her head. Sure, right now it feels like you're a big star and are bound to have a successful career. Enjoy it while it lasts.

Haley Reinhart and Tony Bennett, "Steppin' Out With My Baby". Diva or not, Haley is really good, and it defies the laws of biology that Tony Bennett still sounds as good as he does. The lead-in package of Steven Tyler highlights makes me regret not watching more episodes this season ("Best of Steven Tyler on AI" Youtube video, anyone?).

Top Thirteen Girls, TLC, and L'il Jon, "Come Get Some"/"No Scrubs"/"Waterfalls". They filmed TLC with the widest possible angle because a) their lip-synching was horrible and obvious, and b) they were huffing and puffing ten seconds into the performance, which is surprising even considering how little effort their "dance moves" required. A train wreck of the highest order. I'd be crushed by watching this sham of a performance if I hadn't always hated TLC.

Scotty McCreery and Tim McGraw, "Live Like You Were Dying". Hear that? It's the sound of AI's international viewership going "huh?".

Marc Anthony with Jennifer Lopez and Sheila E, "Aguanile". How did this guy not make it to the final two?

(yes, that's a joke. Marc Anthony killed it. The AI band would be 40% better if Sheila E joined permanently. And J. Lo's ass is ... J. Lo's ass)

Top Thirteen guys and Tom Jones, "Tom Jones medley". I was bored watching this and kept wondering when Tom Jones would finally do his "surprise" walk-on (which might have had a chance at being a real surprise if the girls hadn't done exactly the same thing with Beyonce).

Lady Gaga, "The Edge of Glory". More evidence that "Born This Way" (the album) is meant to be Gaga's "Like a Prayer" (the album), complete with crosses and getting generously groped by a messianic being. But whereas Jesus died alone at the end of the "Like a Prayer" video, Gaga dies with her lover/molester in "The Edge of Glory". They're not hunted down and imprisoned by a public that doesn't understand them, instead, Gaga willingly jumps to her death. What does this symbolize? Is Gaga a godlike figure too? In "Like a Prayer" the whole thing was part of a play, but did anyone in the Kodak theatre see Lady Gaga in the flesh after the show? Where does the performance end and reality begin? It's music taken to the EXTREME.

Lauren Alaina and Carrie Underwood, "Before He Cheats". I don't have a bad word for Carrie Underwood, although that sparkly top hadn't been seen since the 80's.

Beyonce, "1+1". It was difficult to concentrate on this incredible Beyonce performance because I was fixated on the awesome Lee DeWyze lead-in snub. DeWyze decided to turn down the AI producers' offer to announce the new AI winner (but not to perform), so they stuck him several rows back in the audience, didn't show him on camera until the show was 80% finished, didn't introduce him or bother showing a graphic to identify him, and had Ryan Seacrest stand directly between him and the camera so that he was hidden from view, except for the brief moments when he tried tilting his fat ugly head around Seacrest's shoulder to try to get noticed. And it happened twice, in two consecutive Seacrest segments! Couldn't have happened to a less deserving AI-winning doofus. As for the Beyonce song, I haven't heard a female singer beg for someone to make love to her so many times since ... Laura Branigan?

Bono and The Edge ft. the cast of "Spiderman: Turn off the Dark", "Rise Above". Did you know that you can audition for AI next season in various cities in ... wait a minute, is that Lori Laughlin in a purple dress looking super hot?? That's way more exciting than a Spiderman musical written by members of U2.

Steven Tyler, "Dream On". How can his voice sound so ravaged and yet he still somehow nails the scream at the end?

Scotty McCreery, "I Love You This Big". Scotty's so mature and composed for seventeen -- or for any age, but especially for someone only seventeen. I suppose that's a big reason why he won. Kids voted him because he's a kid, and adults voted for him because he didn't seem like a kid. Even his victory lap was calm and composed. He tried not to break down while hugging his family in the front row (stopping short when he came to Jack Black), kept ably singing his new single, and only let his teenage self appear at the very end, when he stuck out his tongue in a humourous attempt to catch the snow-like confetti falling from the ceiling.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Grading "Glee" -- Season 02, Episode 22, "New York"

So this is it. I usually have no problem suspending my disbelief vis-a-vis how the Glee kids pull off these performances (i.e. when do they rehearse? where do all the props and backing orchestras come from?) but the idea that a team would fly across the country for a national singing competition with absolutely nothing prepared is way too far beyond the realm of plausibility.

"My Cup". No point. Sweet and catchy and annoying like an advertising jingle. As if a song about a cup is going to get the point (although Heather Morris' dancing almost saves the song).

"I Love New York"/"New York, New York". B. "I Love New York" encapsulated the ugly side of the mostly excellent "Confessions on a Dancefloor", where Madonna assumed that she could write just about any old garbage-y lyrics because her producer (Stuart Price) would rescue the song for her. The list of singers who can pull off lyrics this dumb pretty much begins and ends with Barney Sumner, but singing it while running around New York causing mischief is a big improvement on the original.

"Still Got Tonight". B-. I had no idea that Matthew Morrison just released a solo album with songs written by people like Kris Allen and JC Chasez. Did he actually go out of his way to get critics to hate his album even more than they already would have? This vaguely Oasis-lite tune isn't half bad, although the weird effects added to his voice do nothing for the song.

"Bella Notte". D. Background music, and did they really sing all their own harmonies? I'm suspicious.

"For Good". C. The song is simply a backdrop for Kurt and Rachel's character transformation from small town singers with big city dreams to small town singers with big city dreams who are determined to escape that small town, like yesterday. That's a nice way to set up season three, where the lingering question will be about what all the Glee kids are going to do with their lives after next season, and how the show is going to continue with everyone presumably wanting to go their separate ways. The Patti LuPone appearance in an earlier scene was a nice touch -- not only was it a nice payoff after she'd been name dropped in a number of episodes, but her advice to Rachel was simple, direct, and inspiring. In thirty seconds on camera, she made a believer out of me. We can do anything we set our minds to! Yes!!

"Yeah!". Point. Girls in frilly white dresses singing Usher? Can't hate.

"As Long As You're There". C. No mention that this was an original song, but that's not really the point. There's no way this was better than Vocal Adrenaline's "Bohemian Rhapsody" from last year (the mother of all ludicrously OTT show choir performances, whereas the so-called action happening behind Sunshine couldn't have been more ordinary) or as good as New Directions' performance in the very next scene. In storyline terms, it makes sense for Vocal Adrenaline to advance to the final round while New Directions have to wait 'til next year, but the performance wasn't nearly up to snuff.

"Pretending"/"Light Up the World". B-. One huge obstacle for "Glee" -- and I don't envy the writers and producers who have to grapple with this -- is that these competition performances have to turn into Special Moments that stand apart from what happens on every other episode. It helps if the writers stack some extracurricular drama around the performance, but on this episode they didn't do themselves any favours. For no particular reason, Mr. Schue decided he wouldn't go to Broadway after all. Quinn's ominous surprise was ... a haircut? There was a nice symmetry in the way Rachel wrote a ballad about her feelings for Finn for Regionals, only for the tables to be turned for Nationals. But considering the magnitude of the moment (trying to win the national championship), the buildup was horrible. Rachel struggled for weeks trying to write something, sinking lower and lower into loneliness while trying to deal with the reality of Finn never coming back to her, but it was only after she was viciously put down by Quinn that she hit rock bottom and was able to tap into her true feelings and write her song. But Finn suddenly decided he wanted Rachel back and his song just kind of ... appeared.

Speaking of things appearing for no reason, Jesse showed up and did nothing although he did hit the nail on the head when he said the kiss was common and vulgar and would cost them the competition. On second thought, that's a big something that perfectly fits Jesse's new role as the asshole who is nonetheless right all the time. The kiss undoubtedly ruined the performance because everything they were feeling was etched on their faces -- Finn: desperate, Rachel: conflicted, both: wanting to jump each other's bones so badly -- and the kiss was just the sledgehammer of plot that cheaply resolved what would have been better left not done.

The songs themselves were watered down copies of the ones they performed at Regionals, especially "Light Up the World", which resembled "Loser Like Me" right down to the guitar intro and the ordering of their individual solos. And the urgency to win the competition wasn't there because we know there's always next year, and all the storylines had been already directed toward next season (Mr. Schue staying, Rachel and Finn getting back together, etc.)


And that's all, folks ... this was a fun experiment that feels completed now that the season is over. I doubt I'll do this again next year, but then again, I graded the first episode of the season to get a bit of a laugh, expecting that it'd be a one-time thing, and somehow ended up writing about all 22 episodes. So never say never ... "promise me you'll never give up".

Friday, May 20, 2011

Grading "Glee" -- Season 02, Episode 21

Can this really mean that Sue is done trying to destroy the glee club? Would she really keep trying to crush them after they paid tribute to Sue's only friend? Would Sue Sylvester really no-sell death? Well, she did try to take advantage of Kurt's vulnerability when he thought his father was dying ...

"Back To Black". C-. She had the moves and the attitude down, which is typical for a Santana performance. But the voice ... as long as we're in "reality show judging" mode, then let me trot out one of my American Idol memes: if you're going to sing something by an iconic singer with a distinctive voice, then fairly or not, you'd better be prepared to be compared to that singer. How many times has someone on American Idol tried to show off by singing something by Mariah or Whitney and been shot down for not even coming close to living up to the original?

"Some People". B-. Continuing along those lines, I was watching this and thinking I it was very good but missing something that would put it over the top. Then Jesse hit the nail on the head with his comments, and everything was clear. Thanks Jesse, for being so good at being such a smug, evil creep (who happens to be right most of the time). Even by Kurt's own show tune standards, this was fairly by-the-numbers.

"Try a Little Tenderness". B. And again! Amber Riley can deliver on the big notes without a doubt, but how many singers have been able to duplicate Otis Reddings' raw, powerful delivery of this song? And Mercedes expects to be favourably compared to Otis if she doesn't practice? Good performance, but there's only one Otis.

"My Man". A-. This blew me away, but after criticizing three other performers who couldn't measure up to the original artists, I knew I had to track down the version from "Funny Girl". Yeah, Barbra's version is better (her emotional range is startling, she can go from practically crying one second to hitting a spectacular high note the next, and does it so naturally, so effortlessly) but Lea Michele's is also excellent. Far from aiming for a note for note copy of Barbra, she did a lot to make this song her own.

"Pure Imagination". N/R. This was really beautifully done and actually transcended trivialities like TV shows and assigning ratings to songs sung on TV shows. Part of me wants to be cynical and look at this as a way for Jane Lynch to campaign for an Emmy by crying on camera, but the whole scene seemed so *real* -- the tribute video to Sue's sister, the musical arrangement, the tears. Probably more so than any other performance on this series, you absolutely cannot separate the song from its context in the episode. I doubt I'd want to hear just the audio of this song ever again, but you can't watch the video and say that this wasn't an inspiring, touching, special moment for "Glee". I simply don't know how to grade a one-off performance at a funeral, even for a fictional character, so I won't try.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Pamela Des Barres, I'm With The Band

For me, the gold standard for sleazy rock and roll biographies is "Backstage Passes" by Angela Bowie. Flip to almost any page in the book and you'll read about her fucking some guy, or David fucking some guy, or David fucking some girl, or her fucking some girl, or the two of them fucking some girl together, or the two of them fucking some guy together. You might think I'm exaggerating, but I'm not (and yes, all the different combos are in there, multiple times). When she's not bragging about the people they fucked, she's bragging about how she's solely responsible for David Bowie's entire career. After all, she was the person who sometimes gave him pointers about what to say or wear (and even designed some of his costumes), so you can surely understand where she's coming from with that, and if you don't, she'd be happy to repeat it for you a thousand times in her inimitably obnoxious and pompous style.

In a 1990 interview, Angie Bowie made a sensational claim about finding David Bowie and Mick Jagger in bed together one morning in the 70's, which was HUGE news at the time and even came packaged to music video stations with its very own catchphrase ("Dancing in the Sheets", a reference to the 1985 Bowie/Jagger hit version of "Dancing in the Streets"). However, she almost immediately backtracked from her story, which was never much of a story to begin with, because she didn't catch anyone in the act, she just walked in on two men sound asleep in the same bed (albeit naked). Even Angie Bowie (and her lawyers) weren't dumb enough to get sued into tiny little bits based on pure speculation, publicity be damned. Snopes has a good summary of the controversy and an excerpt from the book so you can see Angela Bowie's scummy writing style for yourself. Having said all this, "Backstage Passes" was a hilarious and entertaining read, comparable to the enjoyment factor of Jose Canseco's books, and comes highly recommended. Maybe I should track down Stephen Davis' "Hammer of the Gods" next ...

I was expecting much of the same from Pamela Des Barres' somewhat notorious book, but it's nothing like "Backstage Passes". At all. First of all, Des Barres kept a diary her entire life, so we can trust her stories have truth to them since the details and events described in the book were recorded as they happened as opposed to twenty years and tens of thousands of dollars of drug abuse later. There's a tremendous amount of detail in the book, with week-to-week or even day-to-day accounts of her activities, supported by lengthy quotations from her diaries throughout the book. She's a fantastic storyteller with a surprising gift for subtlety that you wouldn't expect in a book like this. The 60's come to a close, the years drag on, and she's washed up as a groupie/pop star with no real plan for what she'll do for the rest of her life, and she's only in her early 20's. She never says that, but you can feel it, the pathos and sense of resignation in her writing is noticeable. She returns to the US after living in London for a few months, and she understands that her associations with rock stars have gotten her nowhere in life -- they've all moved on with their increasingly messed up lives, she needs to pay the bills, and can't rely on anyone other than herself. Again, she never says that explicitly, but it's noticeable in her writing.

"I'm With the Band" is a love story, or rather, a serious of love stories told by an old fashioned girl who wants nothing more than to find herself a husband and settle down. She didn't sleep with Chris Hillman because she wanted to feel empowered, rather, her foremost wish was to become the future Mrs. Hillman, and she spent untold hours writing him letters, designing his shirts, and hanging out with his friends, hoping he'd somehow get the message and make the dream a reality. This pattern repeated itself many times -- with Jimmy Page, Noel Redding, and many others, before she finally crossed paths with her eventual husband Michael Des Barres. It's like "How I Met Your Mother", starring a girl who has a penchant for rock stars.

Along the way, Des Barres helps to deconstruct one 60's myth after another. According to her account, the LA Sunset Strip scene didn't seem to be a haven for political activism and feminist enlightenment, rather, it was teeming with horny Jesus-fearing kids looking to get married in their early 20's, just like their parents did. She quotes from some of the poetry she wrote as a teenager, much of it in the hippy dippy "peace love and understanding" mode, and practically scoffs at it in her restrained, subtle way. A lot of the hedonism of the era comes off looking like the rantings of kids looking to escape their boring suburban lives while showing off how "deep" they are. That's hardly challopsy talk now, but this book was published in 1987, when the 60's were still very much a sacred cow to a lot of music critics. Pamela Des Barres -- ace storyteller and one of the finest, most ahead of her time music critics of the 80's? Can it be?

Some might find the book repetitive and formulaic -- how many times can you slog through page after page of the same love/rejection cycle anyway? Sometimes the book can feel like an intrusion, in a way almost too personal, but that's because you're almost literally reading through someone's diary. I found Des Barres to be very genuine and down to earth, which is tough to pull off when you're parading through so many names. But she has a knack for humanizing every character she came in contact with, no matter how mythic they were.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Grading "Glee" -- Season 02, Episode 20

These grades are brought to you by the number 11, which is where Fleetwood Mac's "Rumours" placed on Billboard 200 this week, solely thanks to last week's episode of "Glee". It blows my mind that a 34-year old album (even one as awesome as "Rumours") can rise from the dead and nearly go top-10 because of a TV show, but on the other (more depressing hand), an album only has to sell 30 000 copies to hit #11 on the charts. To put it another way, only about 0.1% of "Glee"'s viewership liked last week's episode enough to buy that album.

"Rolling In the Deep". B. This started out a bit rough, or maybe that was me coughing at sputtering at the thought of a soul/blues duet on "Glee". But they pushed through and somehow made it work, and something tells me that they're determined to cover all of Adele's "21" by the time the series runs its course (two down, nine to go). Jonathan Groff is just so good in his sleazebag role and in projecting that sleaziness when he sings.

"Isn't She Lovely". C. This wasn't meant to be a marquee performance, but I liked that they added a few extra flourishes (like using the kitchen tools as percussion instruments) even on a throwaway scene.

"Friday". C+. F. This energetic little dance pop number by the reunited Justin Bieber Experience (three-quarters of anyway) might have been simplistic, but as a ploy to get a couple hundred teenagers jumping up and down at their prom, it has to qualify as a big success ... hang on a second, did they really just cover Rebecca Black's "Friday"??? Complete with mid-song rap? Arguably the most ridiculous performance in the history of the show.

"Jar of Hearts". A-. Hallelujah, the "Glee" writers found a song that expresses complex emotions vis a vis an ex who suddenly comes back into someone's life, and it was perfectly suited for the Rachel-Finn-Jesse love triangle. It's not often that they nail a song choice this well, and the dirty/pained looks that the three of them (plus Quinn) were shooting at each other are what lifts this from the "good" to "excellent" range. One of Lea Michele's finest "Glee" performances.

"I'm Not Gonna Teach Your Boyfriend How To Dance With You". A. Electro-pop led by Darren Criss and his zonked out facial expressions? With two hot girls singing the cheerleader backup? Have I mentioned lately that I can't help but turn into a pile of goo whenever I hear this song? This probably deserves top grades, making it unequivocally the greatest performance in the history of "Glee", but it felt way too short, and the scene kept cutting away to other things that were going on. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to have to d/l the full version of this.

"Dancing Queen". D. The arrangement was identical to the original, Santana's vocals were just there but nothing more, and predictably, Amber Riley tried her best to ruin the song even more by adding some runs near the end. If there's any female-led song in the history of the earth that doesn't need unnecessary vocal embellishments to make it work, it's "Dancing Queen". It's one of the greatest songs ever, and these two didn't stand a chance.

Diary of Musical Thoughts Podcast Episode 1

I've been playing around with software and recording the occasional mix for a couple of years now, but I've recently decided that I'd like to start making this more of a regular thing. Installment one is titled "Classic Mix of Communal Hysteria", it's 165 minutes long, and was recorded in one take one morning last month between 1:45 and 4:30 in the morning (with minor edits and sound processing/noise reduction done afterward). I've always enjoyed making mixes late at night, and I started this one with no fixed set list and no real idea of long it would be. This type of mix is my idea of a late night chill out soundtrack, but be warned that "chill out" has never been synonymous with "quiet" in my book. I've always found room for noise and beats when I relax to music in the middle of the night. Incidentally, being awake for most of the night when recording this basically screwed up my sleep patterns for that entire week in April. But I've been listening to the mix a lot since then and haven't gotten sick of it, which is unusual, because there have been plenty of times when I made a mix and decided the next day that it sucks and don't want anyone to hear it. So I guess the body clock interruption was worth it.

One big reason why I haven't been recording and posting mixes is that I'm laughably technologically challenged when it comes to software. I always had a better feel for your basic old school turntables/CD player/mixer setup and am still not at all comfortable mixing on a laptop. I recorded the mix using an old version of Virtual DJ (Version 4.1) on my old laptop and did the editing/cleanup with Audacity 1.3.13 Beta on my newer laptop (technophiles feel free to laugh if you want).

Tracklist and links appear in the comments ... enjoy!

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Grading "Glee" -- Season 02, Episode 19

Reviewing and grading "Glee" is relatively fun and easy because it's usually not a show about MY music. I do have my biases toward many of the show's characters, but when it comes to the songs, I'd like to think I can be a fairly passive observer and just write about what I see and hear. I like the show because I love music and most of their song choices are pretty good, but I usually don't have a strong emotional connection to those songs. In other words, they don't tackle any of my sacred cows so if they butcher something then it's water off a duck's back, and if it turns out to be a memorable rendition then it's a nice bonus.

So now it gets serious. "Rumours". One of my favourite albums of the 70's. An album that changed my life when I rediscovered it in the 90's, remembered how amazing it was, and realized that years of "alternative" radio had irresponsibly educated me to detest stuff like Fleetwood Mac and to listen to shitty punk or indie rock in its place.

The assignment of the week was to pick a song from "Rumours" and to put your own spin on it. Unfortunately, most of them rattled off note-for-note covers of the originals, which means they get zero points for creativity and forces me to compare their xeroxed version with those by The Mac. Guess who's going to win those battles?

"Dreams". C. The songs from "Rumours" aren't "singers songs" in that they leave very little room for embellishment (maybe that's why they wouldn't let Amber Riley sing this week). That means Kristin Chenoweth's talents are a bit wasted on a mid-tempo, laid back song like this, but nonetheless she did Stevie Nicks proud. However, she wasn't the only person singing ... "Dreams" is not a duet, and their voices didn't mesh at all. Matthew Morrison dragged this down a lot.

"Never Going Back Again". B. Artie's singing at the start was, in a word, horrendous but the song redeemed itself by breaking into a huge chorus of acoustic guitars, and well, that's my kryptonite. This was the only point in the episode where it felt that they put some effort into reinterpreting the song.

"Songbird". C-. I've always considered this to be the most overrated song on "Rumours", it simply doesn't move me like it moves most people. Maybe that's why I think it's one of the most, if not the most "coverable" song on the album. On first listen this was way better than I expected, then I heard it a second time with the music only, no picture and had a very different impression. It definitely loses its sheen when you're not watching two hot girls make weepy eyes at each other for two minutes. If this had turned up on the radio I would have recoiled in horror.

"I Don't Want To Know". D+. First of all, the song is about a breakup, not about not wanting to know what secrets your partner might be keeping. I hate it when "Glee" does this. What else can I say? Yeah, they should have smiled more. Next.

"Go Your Own Way". C. They managed to rock out fairly well on the arrangement, but what was with Lea Michele's singing? Finally, a song on where the singer can let loose and really belt out the chorus, and she doesn't do it?

"Don't Stop". C-. The singing and dancing was like one of those group numbers on the results shows of "American Idol". In fact, I'm almost certain they've done this song on AI at least once in that exact setting. Those group numbers are the very definition of "pretty basic stuff", and like this episode-closing performance, they're almost always forgettable.