Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Family news (good)

If you know me outside virtual life, and you have NOT received e-mail from me in the past hour or two, please let me know, and I'll send the pics your way.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Welcome back, Prince

Just flipped over to tonight's SNL repeat and caught Prince's first song.


Through all the flaky personality trips, name changes and lapses into lazy R&B/hip-hop cliches, the guy can freaking play. Wow. Great showman, too.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

It's a album! It's a floor wax! It's a dessert topping!

I'm glad I'm not the only one who has a problem with the whole postmodernist notion that music consumers should have infinite control over how they listen to music. Sure, I'm not giving up my Launch player (a vastly underrated Web tool), my iPod or my satellite radio.

But the whole strategy of releasing as many iterations of an album as Oregon has football uniforms is starting to drive me, in the word of download kings Gnarls Barkley, crazy.

And that's why I like Jason's deconstruction of the new Barenaked Ladies release, which has reduced the process of buying and listening to music to a game of chance.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

"The Office"

- The little glances John Krasinski gives the camera -- and the way they made fun of it

- "Could Oscar and Angela be having a gay affair?"

- The subtle storytelling on the Jim-Pam storyline

- The way all the secondary cast can wring so much humor out of a 5-second confessional or a quick facial reaction

- The way Jenna Fischer can be so silly and then elicit so much sympathy when she goes through one of the horrendous moments that are constantly popping up around her

This is the best freaking show on television.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Me 1, cricket 0

At this time of year in NoVa, the crickets get aggressive in their desire to share your space, hopping through any open door at any time, hot on your heels.

Ours are surprisingly brazen. They don't just hang out in the shadows. We're not swarmed with them or anything, but a couple of times a week, one decides to announce his presence.

So tonight, as I was prepping to head to the basement, I turned around and saw one between me and the stairs. I swear it was staring at me, like an Old West gunslinger. Or possibly the Road Runner.

I put my hands in my shoes for controlled swatting, then creeped closer. I lifted my hand and made my move.

Hop ... hop ... "is that all you got?" the cricket seemed to be asking. He had chosen his escape route well, landing just under the sofa. He stayed there, as if to taunt me further, like John Cleese's Frenchman in Holy Grail.

But the cricket didn't know the room very well. He certainly didn't know that the sofa has felt under each leg, and that means it slides smoothly on hardwood. I got my hand-shoe ready, crouched, and put my head against the arm of the sofa. One slow and steady push, then a quick smack.

Of course, I made quick work out of tossing the hubris victim out the door. Didn't want any more to come in.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Great moments in deconstructing music

From Wikipedia's entry on Coldplay's Fix You:

Some sources claim that this song was written for Gwyneth Paltrow by her husband Chris Martin due to the depression she suffered after the death of her father Bruce Paltrow. Other sources say that the song was written about the time Chris' dog had to go to the vet.

Didn't realize "fix" would be so literal.

"Tears stream down your face when you lose something you cannot replace," indeed.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Review: Guster, Ganging Up on the Sun

One reason Guster is such an important band is that they can be positive without being trite. They don't offer simple solutions, just a dose of empathy, a kick in the seat to get you going and a barrage of bongos and congas to emphasize the point.

Like Indigo Girls before them, they've grown more sophisticated over the years, both musically and lyrically. (Quick aside to Rhapsody: Indigo Girls is a much, much better "similar artist" for Guster than what you have listed. Matchbox 20? Are you kidding? This is music for smart college kids and those of us who used to be smart college kids, not teenage girls smitten with Rob Thomas.)

That growth can be dangerous, as Indigo Girls discovered. After spending the '90s mastering a terrific fusion of folk-rock and prog-rock, they turned a little too country for my tastes, and the lyrics were too straightforward and strident. (That said, Tether is a terrific, uplifting anthem that builds to some guitar work that qualifies as both searing and soaring.)

Guster skirts on the edge in Ganging Up on the Sun. If you glance at the lyric sheet, you might think they've joined the rest of their genre in self-pity and hopelessness. On Empire State, in which Ryan Miller broods over some barely audible accompaniment, they do. And Hang On, the last song in the running order, dips a little too close to cliche, as you can guess from the title.

Thankfully, those are the worst two songs on the album. On the rest, they tackle their topics with a mix of poignant metaphor and gallows humor, set against a backdrop of shifting musical styles that offers plenty of changeups. As with the predecessor Keep It Together, it's hard to hear some of the songs and not think "9/11" or possibly "global warming" or just, in the second line of Manifest Destiny, "how did everything get so fucked up?" But they generally leave just enough ambiguity that the words can be addressed to a politician, a friend, a significant other or anyone.

Manifest Destiny is the most accessible track, not just because of that ear-grabbing f-bomb in the second line. I've seen a review referring to this one as Beatlesque, but I'll be more specific -- it's straight from the Paul McCartney songbook in musical style, with a cabaret-style piano. Lyrically, it's a nice tale of escape, harkening back several albums to, appropriately enough, Great Escape. ("You and I could split this scene / Build a town and then secede / like an Adam and an Eve")

In the same vein is the album's other playful song, The Captain, which reminds me of the great scene in the BBC adaptation of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy in which Ford and Zaphod, thinking they're doomed, are singing the Betelgeuse Death Anthem. (To my astonishment, I found that most references to this song online are indeed "Betelgeuse Death Anthem" -- I can't believe I remembered the name.) "Marching forward with no doubt in his head / Onward," chants Ryan and company over a banjo and country backbeat, as if we're going to have a righteous hoedown while the "captain" leads us wherever -- maybe oblivion, but let's just keep on dancing.

One Man Wrecking Machine is a good choice as the album's first single (and video) because it has a catchy chorus that burns itself into your head without that grating sensation of most pop songs. It's a sort of twist on the Guster classic What You Wish For, with the final chorus slightly more positive than the last. The first two verses are a wish to go back and re-script high school, maybe to get on a firmer footing after that. By the end, we've realized that's a useless wish.

At first glance, I thought the lyrics were a little too close to sheer self-pity. But on a couple of listens, it sounds more like a common Guster theme -- feeling your pain while encouraging you to do something other than wallowing in it. Sure, we all dream of going back to high school and being smarter, more popular, more athletic, etc. But if you could build a time machine, what would you solve? What difference would it make?

There are a couple of louder, uptempo songs. C'mon is a more overt sequel to Great Escape, perhaps too much of a repeat for my tastes. The New Underground is along the lines of the great Smashing Pumpkins genre-bashing Cherub Rock ... IF it's about the music industry, which can't be assumed.

And there are a couple of more subdued, minor-key songs. Lightning Rod is another one of those post-9/11, pre-ice cap melting songs that sound vaguely ominous, but Ryan manages to convey a sense of resilience which, again, a lesser band wouldn't manage. Satellite is faster, borrowing the mood and maybe a hook or two from The Church's Reptile (Yes, I felt vindicated in thinking this when the Gusterography site quoted Brian Rosenworcel's description: "It's more of a Fleetwood Mac meets The Church kind of thing"). I like the song but don't know quite what to make of the lyrics, and I'm not alone.

That leads us to the centerpiece of this album -- the epic (running time: 7:06) Ruby Falls. It's an unusual Guster song for so many reasons. First, it covers a lot of musical territory -- almost a '70s feel at times, then some shrieking guitar, then a long, shimmering fadeout punctuated by a trumpet solo, so indispensible in the arrangement that Adam Gardner seems to have learned the trumpet just so he could play it live. Second, the chord changes are just crazy -- a tab I read lists the verse as F, Dm, A (no, not Am!), Bb, F, Eb, Bb, then the chorus is Dm, Emsus4 (OH, I love this chord in this chorus), Bb, F.

Third, the lyrics -- Rosenworcel's -- could refer to almost anything you like. A broken relationship? Again, the state of the world? Getting lost in the woods, looking for a waterfall? Here's Ryan in an engaging interview: "The song probably means something totally different to (Brian) than it does to me, and I’m the one singing it."

It's just brilliant. The only band I can name that could've written and recorded something like this is Yes, and Steve Howe and Rick Wakeman would've tacked on some 800-note solos to stretch it to 20 minutes. The only showy bits in this song are some thunderous fills from Rosenworcel, perhaps proving the former hand-drum king can also find his way around a kit. (Or maybe he actually did it all on hand drums just to fool you -- there are a handful of songs that sound like a kit on first listen but probably aren't, and he spent a lot of time in the bongos-and-congas area when I saw them live a few weeks ago.)

I've seen some valid criticism of this album, and I can imagine some others. There's nothing as catchy and fun as some of the early Guster works, and some people miss the old sound. Rebuttal: Within the confines of the old two-guitars-and-hand-drums sound, they probably could never top Lost and Gone Forever, and you can rest assured they'll be playing those songs live until Brian's hands can no longer take it. Today's Guster can bounce around through several musical styles and still have it sound like Guster. That's the sign of a mature band.

Yet I'll agree with this reviewer that we don't hear enough of Adam's vocals, and that Ryan's voice wears thin as you hit the seventh or eighth song. Guster built itself up with two good singers, not one great one, and they made it work. It strikes me a mistake to drop to one at this point.

I generally don't do "star" rankings. I'll summarize this way:

  • Interesting, worth at least a listen? Definitely
  • At least three iPod-worthy songs? I have six -- Lightning Rod, Satellite, Manifest Destiny, One Man Wrecking Machine, The Captain and Ruby Falls.
  • Fun as well as artistically satisfying? More the latter than the former, but certainly entertaining
  • Best album to get if I'm a first-time Guster listener? No -- get Lost and Gone Forever, then download Amsterdam and Come Downstairs and Say Hello, then get this one. If you want more of the old Guster sound, try Demons and Great Escape.

A Down With Snark classic

I really can't add anything to this, but I wanted to pass it along for the benefit of my five or six readers because it's the sort of anti-rhetorical cognitive thinking we desperately need in these snarky times.

"Anti-rhetorical" probably isn't a word, but I don't know what I'd choose in its place. Basically, we are living in the Age of Rhetoric. If you, like me, have ever had an e-mail exchange with a professional pundit, you know that Logic is the weakest of the seven classical liberal arts these days, and Rhetoric is the strongest. You know what we should call Rhetoric without Logic? Bullshit.

And DWS has the best bullshit detector this side of The Daily Show.

So here's a key excerpt -- enjoy, then go read the rest.

There's a rule about the snark parentheses. They are used for snarking something that your target ACTUALLY SAID. If you cannot find a quote that suits your brilliant snarky bon mot, YOU DO NOT GET TO POSIT THE EXISTENCE OF SUCH A QUOTE AND MAKE SOMETHING UP.

One thing I'll note just to show how deserving DWS' target, Germaine Greer, happens to be -- she was making a tasteless point about Steve Irwin, whose death to me is the rough equivalent of Evel Knievel getting struck by lightning on his way to the store. For all the daring things he did, he suffers a direct hit from a stingray? I'd expect that to happen to, say, me -- a lily-livered couch potato who doesn't do things like snorkeling and scuba diving precisely because I'd freak out and startle a stingray. But a guy who wrestled crocodiles dying this way? To use another analogy, it's like an Old West gunfighter getting shot accidentally by a neighbor cleaning his gun.

Naturally, in the era of snark (which is just Rhetoric Gone Wild), people are going to make fun of him anyway. And that's why we need more blogs like DWS to take them down without resorting to the hate speech that people so often use in place of rational arguments.

(One little twist to show how muddled our thinking has become: One of Greer's critics, some sort of Aussie bureaucrat, rightly points out that it's tasteless to say such things while Irwin's family is grieving -- I'd argue that being wrong is never right, no matter how much time you give a family to grieve -- but then labels her rant "political correctness." Not once, but twice. How is taking potshots at a recently deceased, widely beloved man "politically correct"?)

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Next time, ASK someone

The Post's John Maynard (or an editor) had a neat story idea -- watch five cooking shows and see what a neophyte can learn about cooking.

One problem: He picked lousy shows.

Emeril's show is fine for his purposes, even if it's not one of my favorites. But Take Home Chef? Throwdown with Bobby Flay, which is apparently some sort of Iron Chef knockoff?

Here's what Maynard should have watched, courtesy of a regular Food Network viewer:

- We'll leave Emeril, just for the different style.

- Good Eats. Emeril's polar opposite -- an engaging nerdy guy using all sorts of contrived situations and props to teach us the science of cooking. You won't always get a good recipe, but you'll always learn something.

- 30 Minute Meals. The conventional wisdom on Rachael Ray seems to be that people love her or can't stand her. I dare to think my opinion is true for most of us -- we love her cooking shows and are a little ambivalent on her awkwardly staged "travel, meet and greet" shows.

- License to Grill. An obscure one from Discovery Home channel, featuring a guy who has a lot of expensive grills in his backyard and always has pretty friends coming over.

- Everyday Italian. You can't get any friendlier than Giada, and her recipes look useful.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Any film you can hate, I can hate better

After being subjected to six weeks of ads for The Wicker Man, I'm enjoying the critical backlash, even if it's late in coming because this film wasn't pre-screened.

Check out all the reviews at Rotten Tomatoes, where critics are one-upping each other with vitriol as if they're auditioning for the handful of funny scenes in White Men Can't Jump.

Current favorites:

"Really could have used a few musical numbers and more cavorting naked women." (Edward Douglas,

"In the remake, LaBute has Cage beating up women with karate kicks, and has placed an insulting coda on the film that screams of studio intervention of the worst kind. This is not progress." (Brian Orndorf,

"It is perhaps a tad unreasonable to recommend that actor Nicolas Cage and writer/director Neil LaBute be burned at the stake for what they’ve done to The Wicker Man, that most British of cult movies." (Peter Howell, Toronto Star)

"I had no idea The Wicker Man remake was a comedy." (Rebecca Murray,

And the one that made me think of the hilariously absurd meeting of costumed bears in The Avengers: "When he was reading the script, and saw the part of the movie where he is supposed to run through the forest in a bear suit, I hope Cage asked for a huge pay raise." (Willie Waffle,