Thursday, October 26, 2006

Tolerable drama

I don't watch a lot of drama. It's not because I don't respect the art form. It's because it tends to seep too deeply into my brain, forcing me into another reality. So I have to find something I like about that reality to tolerate the trip.

I've watched 15 minutes of 24, and it was terrific. Maybe someday, I'll watch the rest of that season. But I can't devote that much time to worrying about Jack Bauer right now. Not with two young kids. Not while I'm at a career crossroads. Not with yard work to be done.

Lost just seems far too bleak to me, though I have to concede I haven't watched it. I see ads with a woman holding a baby on an island, and I want to cry. All the joys I've seen with my kids are joys this kid will never know. I'm sure someone will tell me Lost is about the triumph of the human spirit, and there may be some truth to that. It is, as Steven Johnson has noted with similar shows, a testament to how much complexity Generation Y can absorb in its TV viewing, and that's great. I simply can't spend that much time on the island. I'm fascinated in reading about Lost, which I sometimes do. But I can't watch it.

And forget ER. Nice of them to let at least one kid and his mom survive, but it's too little, too late.

I've found two exceptions ...

Friday Night Lights. It's hauntingly beautiful, just like its theme music (play Remember Me As a Time of Day, though it's edited -- to brilliant effect -- in the opening credits). I'm sure some people would say it's as bleak as Lost in the sense that all of the people involved are striving for things they're not likely to reach. The star quarterback is paralyzed. His girlfriend is realizing -- slowly -- that the fairy-tale life she planned with him probably isn't going to happen. The brooding alcoholic fullback is racked with guilt over the injury, and messing around with his girlfriend (my theory: He can't stand to see her despondent, and in his subconscious, he's just trying to make her happy). The coach only occasionally finds the words to wriggle out of uncomfortable conversations with boosters and townspeople who will think him a failure if he doesn't deliver a title. The supposed star running back who stinks up the field and blames his blockers.

And then there's the character with whom I identify -- the backup QB full of self-doubt who also has a part-time job and cares for a grandmother with dementia.

Gee, I make it sound great, don't I?

Well, it is. Like all good scripted sports, it delivers the occasional moment of triumph. And a few moments of levity, like the coach urging the backup QB to deal with tension by asking out the girl he likes and taking her to the back seat, not realizing that the girl in question is (ulp!) his daughter. The scene in which he realizes what he's done simply cannot be topped in writing, directing and acting. It's brilliant.

At its core, the show is about identity. The town's identity is wrapped tightly around this football team, fairly or unfairly. The paralyzed QB is grappling with questions of who he's supposed to be now. His girlfriend, having lost the "Mrs. NFL QB-in-waiting" persona, is searching.

In all likelihood, few people in the show will get everything to which they aspire -- the state title, the major college scholarship, the perfect relationship. In that sense, perhaps it is like Lost.

But what you'll see in this show -- as you see in sports -- are the little triumphs you gain while striving for something bigger. The backup QB, as the coach tells him in the last episode, is a changed man already.

I'm wondering if America is failing to embrace this show because it can't deal with triumph on a small scale. American mythology is that you aim high ... and succeed. Or die trying. Friday Night Lights is for those of us in the middle.

Watch it. Or I'll hunt you down and physically injure you.

The other drama (with considerable wit) on my mind: Doonesbury, subject of a good profile in the weekend's Post Magazine.

When For Better or For Worse launches into something tragic, that's a safe bet to skip the next couple of weeks. In fact, you can pretty well skip the strip every day except Sunday, when Lynn Johnston occasionally brings the funny with a pet-related cartoon. She touched a lot of people when the old dog, Farley, died in heroic fashion, and so now she goes to the well far too often. And she gets more maudlin each time.

When I saw a Doonesbury strip in which B.D.'s Army buddy, Ray, was clearly agitated amid circumstances that weren't immediately clear, I knew this would be the first thing I read in the paper for the next week and likely beyond. I didn't know if Garry Trudeau was going to let B.D. die or be seriously wounded. But I knew he was going to handle it thoughtfully. We didn't actually see B.D. for a couple of days, and it was a striking image -- wounded, missing a leg, seen for the first time without a helmet. In one panel, he had transformed the character.

The Post story shows us just how thoughtful his work really is. Trudeau talked to veterans before figuring out what to do with the storyline. That gives him some cred, and it gives him the confidence to inject humor into the situation. (A classic features a doctor describing the stages through which amputees pass. Last panel: B.D., off-screen, yells "Son of a BITCH!" Doc concedes that some skip through the "denial" stage.)

Trudeau has received a warm welcome from wounded veterans. It's no surprise. He's telling stories better than many journalists can. Just as The Simpsons is often a better reflection of society than your daily paper, Doonesbury is capturing reality for us.

So from these tragic, desperate situations, I'm getting uplifting thoughts. I'm inspired. I'm not sure I can say that about most dramas. If Lost is a testament to the human spirit of survival, great; if it's just a big puzzle to expand mental capability, then chess is just as efficient.

(Maybe Lost is the reason America doesn't produce many good chess players. Damn you, Hollywood.)

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Lawyers, guns, Bohemian Rhapsody

Some quick fun with YouTube, and then I need to get to work.

Via Lex: Junior Dylan's voice is a little too laid-back for this song, but it's otherwise a spirited performance of Warren Zevon's classic Lawyers, Guns and Money. The highlight is when Zevon's son Jordan takes a couple of lines. The vocal similarity is eerie.

It's the Wallflowers, with Jordan Zevon, on Letterman (no surprise -- Dave was Zevon's biggest fan and even sang/yelled in Hit Somebody (The Hockey Song).

Here's something I had on tape long ago but have not been able to find. If you grew up in MTV's golden age, you probably saw the British alternative-comedy The Young Ones. Three-quarters of those guys were regulars on The Comic Strip Presents -- Peter Richardson, another Strip-per, backed out of The Young Ones for reasons that remain murky, for which Christopher Ryan must be forever grateful.

Anywho, one of the Comic Strip's classic creations is a screechingly bad metal band called Bad News. Their mockumentary was pretty good, particularly Rik Mayall's portrayal of a bassist trying to fit in with the metal scene by hiding his "posh" house and the fact that he's reading up on the history of feudal Britain.

A good short dose -- though perhaps longer than many can take, considering that the joke is how excruciating their performance is -- is this video of Bohemian Rhapsody. Enjoy, and try to stick it out at least until the "Scaramouche" section.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Perhaps this is where my YouTube browsing should end ...

Tobogganing Safety tips from Geddy Lee ...

Yes, that Geddy Lee. The best bass player in rock. Rush. Opinions of vocal style may vary. Sense of humor surprisingly good.

Underrated bands: Dubstar

No longer around, though their official site intriguingly says "Dubstar 2007" ... and nothing else. Lead singer Sarah Blackwood -- who has a lilting voice with affectations of her English accent, like a more polished Bananarama -- is in another band now.

I gather that Stars was their biggest hit. It's one of those gorgeous synth-and-bass songs with a dreamy vocal.

My favorite Dubstar song isn't available anywhere that I've found -- not on iTunes, not on YouTube, not on Rhapsody. Just on Launch. It's Just a Girl She Said. The lyrics -- a tidy bit of frustration over guys who can't see anything in women beyond quick pick-up and toss-away -- have extra impact in the lush keyboard setting that is exactly what you would not expect from a quick read.

Songs you have to admit you like

Especially because you can't get that chorus out of your head.

Even if this song isn't available on iTunes.


But it's at YouTube in all its weirdo-erotic glory.

(Unfortunately, I couldn't find Beavis & Butthead's riffs on it, though I think the commenters at YouTube got it right.)

Yes, I'm dragging this out.

So that you'll be mildly surprised.

Even though it's a song you all know and love.

Even if you claim not to admit it.

Or remember it.

But you know and love the chorus.

Shall we sing it together?

Everyone ready?

3 ...

2 ...

1 ...


And they say the Swedes don't have a sense of humor. Don't they? I don't know. I'm not getting much sleep.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Ooh ooh ... oh!

Being a big fan of the Dandy Warhols tune Bohemian Like You (fun lyrics, good delivery, great guitar riff now used for radio intros and ads), I decided to check out YouTube to see if they made a video. Well, yes, there are two.

Would you prefer the MTV version?

Or the one where you can see the woman topless and the guy's ... hello!

I kind of prefer the MTV version. Not that I'm a prude, and the nudity fits in conceptually anyway, but I like the extended semi-karaoke scenes reminiscent of one of the most endearing Talking Heads efforts, Wild Wild Life. Yes, I believe that is John Goodman. And you have to love the fact that Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth seem like such a fun, quirky couple as well as a great rhythm section.

That said, I never thought Talking Heads lived up to their potential, often failing to follow through on promising ideas. One example -- check out what Living Colour did with Memories Can't Wait, which sounded a little affected in in the Heads' hands.

Living Colour is still bending that song way out of whack behind Vernon Reid's guitar heroics:

If that's a little too much Vernon overkill, check out a nice restrained performance on the gorgeous tune Nothingness, written by drummer Will Calhoun. Always one of my favorite songs.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Friday night videos

Proof that Jimmy Fallon had bright moments on SNL (and that Drew Barrymore is ridiculously cute:

Is that Maya Rudolph in green in the amusing Rentals video Waiting?

Madness plays around with both meanings of House of Fun:

I miss Pop-Up Video. And Men at Work. And funny low-budget videos like Down Under.

And to end the evening with a little inspiration, how about this: Bruce Springsteen and Bono getting their righteous indignation on. Jackson Browne and Bob Dylan trading lines before handing off to Peter Garrett. Miles Davis on trumpet. Clarence Clemons on sax. Ringo Starr on drums. Run DMC, David Ruffin, Eddie Kendrick, Hall & Oates, Lou Reed ... Joey Ramone!

That's right, it's Artists United Against Apartheid with the most kick-ass mass-effort socially conscious song ever produced.

So ... are they hiring?

Indiana U. study says The Daily Show is just as substantive as an actual network newscast. Huffington Post points to a story the "MSM" missed but Jon and company got.

Makes me feel better knowing that someone is doing quality work out there.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Where are they now: Velocity Girl

No idea about the rest of the band, but after There's Only One Thing Left to Say popped up twice on iTunes today, I checked AllMusic and MySpace for Sarah Shannon, the lead singer. AllMusic says she's doing solo work that sounds like Carole King. MySpace confirms it.

And ... it sounds pretty good. I'd like to hear this on XMCafe or some of the other online/satellite radio options that confuse "laid-back" with "mopey."

Incidentally, I have one major complaint with MySpace. It's UGLY. Just nasty-looking pages throughout. Search results pages look like those URL-squatting pages that try to shove spyware on your hard drive when you mistype something. ("Middnight Oil tickets from / Is your hard drive infected? / Enlarge your penis!" -- that sort of thing)

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Attention YouTubers

OK, so you have your TV routed through your computer in a way that lets you capture video. (Or in some cases, you have a video camera pointed at your TV, just to add that bit of analog warmth to a cold digital experience.) And you have some editing software, and maybe Photoshop.

You do not, however, own a video company. You don't own a company of any kind. You are not a media mogul.

You are a guy passing around a videotape, just with better technology. You're a guy who plugged your tape recorder into Guster's sound board and swapped tapes with a guy in Omaha, where Guster doesn't appear quite as often.

So when you post your recording on YouTube, don't show me some bullshit "Starry Night Productions" logo. You didn't produce crap. Most of the time, you're violating the copyright of people who DID produce something. At best, you're staying within your Fair Use rights and helping to promote the artists who actually did the hard parts -- the concept, the scripts, the storyboards, the casting, the filming, the acting, the songwriting, the recording, the editing and whatever dues-paying they needed to even get into the position to do the concepts, scripts, storyboards, casting, filming, acting, songwriting, recording and editing in the first place.

If you write something original, crank it out on some musical instruments you have lying around and produce a video of yourself doing all that, fine. You can call it "Songs from My Parents' Basement Productions" or whatever you want.

If you're just passing along a recording ... no. No. Bad dog. Got it?

What prompted this rant was the well-publicized post on Weird Al's Top 10 videos. Have to say it's a pretty good list. The new one is great, even if I don't know the original. (That's the problem with Weird Al today -- music is so fragmented that there are no universal Beat It-stature songs to parody. He can either parody hip-hop or the Grey's Anatomy soundtrack, knowing that the audiences barely intersect. But if he's going to bring the funny like that, he's still worth a listen.)

Monday, October 02, 2006

Carbon Leaf: Sounding good

As I've mentioned on more than one occasion (most relevantly here), I'm impressed with Carbon Leaf, an Irish-flavored (Rhapsody actually files them under "Celtic rock") Richmond band that, like Guster, can dwell on the negative side of things as well as any emo/alt-rock bands around but has an underlying uplifting attitude that sets it apart. (Apologies to any Death Cab for Cutie fans, but I ... just ... can't ... get ... past ... the name. They could be the second coming of The Beatles, with the musicianship of Rush thrown in, and I wouldn't buy their stuff. The name just smacks of snark and unfocused rebellion against comfortable suburbia. Rant over.)

Anyway, Carbon Leaf has a new album out (Love Loss Hope Repeat), and the three or four songs I've heard are outstanding. Learn to Fly, despite the cliched title, is a well-crafted pop single. Under the Wire is a good one built on unexpected interplay between good hooks from the guitar and vocal, punctuated by some well-timed tom-tom thumps.

The standout -- though it might not be the one that tops most iPod playlists -- is The War Was in Color, a poignant imaginary conversation between a soldier killed in WWII and a grandson just coming across some of his old photos and memorabilia. Set in a major key with some martial drums like a classic U2 effort, the lyrics are unsparing in their detail but imbued with a stoicism you're not likely to find in today's narcissistic pop culture.

Like all the Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks work of recent years on WWII projects, the song reminds us of the horrors of war while glamorizing those who took the risks -- when the cause was worthy. Carbon Leaf reminds us in particular that the WWII generation fought so that future generations would have a better life. And one of the hallmarks of that better life -- peace.

A few months ago in a local hardware store, I heard a curious country song about going to Arlington. That's the cemetery, not the nice restaurants and bars along Wilson Boulevard, and this guy wasn't going as a guest. It was the sort of propaganda I was once taught we didn't do in this country, exalting war deaths as some rite of passage for each generation. The War Was in Color pays tribute to the bravery of our fathers and grandfathers while rebutting the notion that those who remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

A Carbon Leaf fan weaved together some war footage to make a video that's worth at least one look. It's not graphic, but it bolsters the point that war can't be sanitized.

Carbon Leaf has a lot of songs that are more fun than this. Some good songs aren't going to make it to the party mix. Another good example: Living Colour's Flying, a tribute to those who died in the World Trade Center through the eyes of someone who finally got the nerve to meet that special someone at the very last minute -- it's a terrific song, but I've only been able to bring myself to listen to it once. With its haunting but uplifting melodic hooks and sentiment, I'll listen to this more often. And every now and then, all of us should do the same.

(Sorry to be sanctimonious about such things -- I'm a father of two now, and I'm only going to get more and more protective of their futures. So every now and then, I may embrace a song like this. But most of the time, I'll be watching Family Guy in between diaper changes like a normal 21st century dad.)