Friday, April 28, 2006

Why I don't watch Grey's Anatomy

One reason, and one reason only: The music.

Not the hip adult alternative songs demonstrating each week how much their musical tastes overlap with Zach Braff's. I'm talking about the grating instrumental background music.

Here's the thing -- the music is also a major irritation for me in Desperate Housewives, though the breaking point for me with that show was the fact that Felicity Huffman, Emmy or no Emmy, is totally wasted in that one-note role. In DH, pizzicato strings are the rough equivalent of porn music. (Yes, "womp-chickabomp-BOWWW" music.) They cue the strings, and we hear Mary Alice talking about death and psychologically scarred kids like she's gossiping about someone's cleavage-baring dress. ("We all have our secrets ... whether it's that dress we tried to return for store credit after getting it dirty ... or the fact that we're harboring a cannibalistic serial killer in our basement ...")

I believe Grey's Anatomy has added a celesta to the pizzicato strings. Or maybe it's all just a synthesizer with a random bell added to some lame string sound. It sounds like someone is trying to do a production of The Nutcracker while we're all wondering if George will ever get laid again after Meredith burst out crying in the middle of their premaritals. (Wow, seriously -- that's harsh. It's a bit of a blow to the male ego to know that whatever you're doing provides such scant distraction from whatever else is going on in someone's head. On the other hand, Paris Hilton spent most of that tape practicing silly poses for the camera, blissfully oblivious to the act in progress, and yet that guy seemed to think the tape was flattering. Some men really are that clueless. OK, where was I?)

So anyway -- the music just doesn't work for me. I find it so irritating that it keeps from watching a show I otherwise would watch. Is that crazy?

Background music also was a factor in my shunning of The X-Files. Just a bit creepy for my tastes.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Note to Matt and Trey

Guys, you can probably make funny jokes about Al Gore. He does it pretty well himself. But just having him repeat the word "serial" when he means "serious"? I didn't get it the first time. What makes you think I'd get it the next 100?

Funny Cartman storyline, though.

Ladies and gentlemen, my 200th post!

Random notes

1. For the first time, I've been contacted by an artist whose work I've mentioned in this here blog. Fortunately, it was someone who got a positive review, and the person was as down-to-earth and flat-out nice as I could've hoped.

2. I'm becoming a Rachael Yamagata fan. The playful 1963 is climbing into the Top 20 on my iPod and will likely reach the Top 10. I bumped her up to 100 on my Launch station and found a couple more songs worthy of my 99 cents. She sounds a lot like Fiona Apple and shares the same problem -- her slower songs drag. But Apple rarely, if ever, records any midtempo or uptempo songs as engaging as Yamagata's. Like Apple and a few other female piano-based vocalists (Norah Jones, even Tori Amos at times), Yamagata has distinct jazz influences, and she sings with a sultry voice. On 1963, at least, she does it better than the others. She could probably sing the phone book and make it sound sexy. Fortunately, she's a better songwriter than that.

3. Speaking of my Launch station -- why do tech geeks drool over every online musical offering except this one? My Launch station is interactive in the sense that I can rate songs and artists I want to hear more often, and it's "social" like deli.cio.us and all those other shared bookmarking sites that probably make sense to 15-year-olds but make little sense to me. If it were owned by Goooogle instead of Yahoo, you know the self-anointed hipsters would be all over it.

And finally some slam-book silliness for you (I hate the word "meme"):

Accent: Slightly Southern. Slight enough that it surprises people to hear I'm from Georgia.

Booze: Killian's, Bass, various other pretentious beers in moderation. Occasionally wine.

Chore I Hate: Weeding. I spend 15 minutes in a painful crouch, then look back and find that they've all grown back.

Dog or Cat: One good dog, but I grew up with both. In fact, I had a dog and a cat as recently as 2002.

Essential Electronics: Computer, TV with digital cable.

Favorite Cologne(s): I'm more of a Borussia Moenchengladbach fan.

Gold or Silver: White gold.

Hometown: Same as Keith from the B-52s.

Insomnia: On occasion.

Job Title: Special Projects Editor. For all the sense that makes.

Kids: Yep.

Living arrangements: 2,800-square-foot two-level split-foyer house.

Most admirable trait: Willingness to do thankless jobs that sink my career.

Number of sexual partners: Let's put it this way. I figured out high school dating after I graduated. I figured out college dating after I graduated from there. I figured out adult dating ... well, never. It's a miracle that I reproduced.

Overnight hospital stays: None, unless you include being a spectator at delivery.

Phobias: Idiots and/or fanatics with access to weapons.

Quote: "Everything I say is a lie. Except that. And that. And that. And that. And that. And that." - Peter Griffin

Religion: Episcopalian

Siblings: Three older half-siblings

Time I wake up: 6:45 a.m. 7 a.m. 7:10 a.m. 7:25 a.m.

Unusual talent or skill: Coin-snatching.

Vegetable I refuse to eat: Brussel sprouts, most mushrooms, asparagus, artichokes.

Worst habit: Empty calories, though I'm getting better about my soda intake.

X-rays: Three broken fingers (all at different times). Teeth.

Yummy foods I make: Chili -- the secret is yellow bell pepper to add a subtle sweetness. I'm also pretty good at stir-frying. I also do corn on the grill, occasionally with success.

Zodiac sign: Aries.

Signs, signs, everywhere a sign ...

I got home today to find that our lawn service had visited the house. They left a note on a stake in the middle of the lawn. I walked up to see what it said ....

"Please stay off grass until dry."

So I used my limited telekinetic powers to raise my body, formed my shirt into the shape of a sail and let the breeze carry me back to the sidewalk.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Nooooobody expects the Spanish Inquisition, er, Intervention!

Web search of the day: I could've sworn Tina Fey and company have attempted an intervention on Lindsay Lohan before. ...

And my memory is correct! They did, as told in this story adding more details to Intervention 2: The Revenge.

Lohan isn't a bad SNL host by any means, and I appreciate her gift for self-parody. But she has hosted an inordinate number of times at a young age, almost as if Michaels and Fey are trying to keep tabs on her. It gets a little distracting when SNL doubles as outpatient care.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Rush revisited

Here's what funny about Rush, the band that accounts for the largest block in my CD and iTunes collections: The music recorded at the height of their popularity is the music least likely to mentioned in a "best of" collection or a current Rush set list.

This is evident on VH1's Hangin' With series, in which Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson talk about the band's history and VH1 rolls a bunch of videos from the early '80s, all of which were MTV staples at the time but have been pretty much forgotten.

The early '80s were a collision of things for Rush. They recorded their biggest album, Moving Pictures, just as MTV was coming into its own. And as we all know from watching MTV in those days, this was the heyday of the synthesizer. So they recorded synth-driven songs on Grace Under Pressure and Power Windows, and they made videos that were just as slickly produced as anything else from that era. Their earlier output was a staple of rock radio at the time, particularly all the songs from Moving Pictures and its predecessor, Permanent Waves. (Think Tom Sawyer, The Spirit of Radio, Limelight, Freewill, etc.) Part of the spectacle of a Rush concert in those days was seeing Geddy Lee juggle his bass and synthesizer duties, often standing with a bass behind two stacks of keyboards with his feet on a sprawling array of pedals, perhaps wishing he had more hands.

So why is that it takes a VH1 special to air all those old videos, why has that music disappeared from the radio (while the Moving Pictures/Permanent Waves material lingers), and why does Geddy Lee spend a bare minimum of time anywhere near a keyboard?

Yes, it's a little dated. The same tinny sound that dragged down many a Depeche Mode song in that era drags down Rush songs. The synth riff in Tom Sawyer works because it has a little bit of nastiness to it that fits the song. The synth effects in Distant Early Warning, The Big Money and Mystic Rhythms -- well, perhaps if they re-recorded them today with different sonic textures ...

Sometimes, the songs continue to work in a new context. If my memory of my 2002 Rush concert experience is true, Distant Early Warning was one of very songs from the 1982-1999 era played at the show, and it was perhaps more powerful then than it was back in the old days. The song title clearly refers to an old Cold War nuclear fear, and the video hits the same theme. But much of the song resonated in a post-9/11 world as well.

But that's a rare exception from the '80s. And in hindsight, I'd agree with AllMusic's assessment that Rush slid downhill during the decade, relying too heavily on synthesizers and Neil Peart's electric drums. Perhaps it's no wonder that such electronics featured less heavily on Rush's output in the '90s and are barely visible onstage now.

(I can hear one objection -- the electronics aren't as prominent on stage because the technology is better. Peart can use one drumpad to replicate most of what he did with an entire electronic kit as he had in the '80s, back when he would switch from acoustic to electric on a drum riser that rotated. And there's no reason for Lee to have more than one keyboard on stage when he can grab any sound he needs.)

So the synth era is less fondly remembered than the classic rock era or the modern, guitar-driven era, though that's when Rush got the most media exposure of its career.

But wait ... apparently the new "R30" DVD/CD set includes forgotten synth-era favorite Between the Wheels.

Should've asked for that for my birthday, though I think Mrs. MMM doesn't like to encourage my Rush fixation. Something about Geddy Lee's voice. And probably those cheesy synth sounds.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Brief TV reviews

I've seen very little of The War at Home. I've only seen the ads for Teachers.

But I've seen enough to know that they both suck. Stale format, stale jokes, stale acting.

This concludes the brief TV reviews.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Fun with iTunes

Having had little of interest to say in recent weeks, I'm turning to my iTunes to take stock of my current listening habits:

MOST RECENTLY ADDED

The Dolphin's Cry, Live: A little sanctimonious, as are many songs in the Live catalog. Also a powerful and compelling bit of rock, as are many songs in the Live catalog. As with U2, you take the good with the bad, even if the good isn't quite as essential as Bono and company's 25-year output.

Clumsy, Our Lady Peace: One of Raine Maida's more restrained vocals, and it works. This isn't an epic like the band's earlier underrated efforts, Naveed and Starseed, both of which were masterclasses in spinning guitar hooks and an emotional vocal performance into a breathtaking piece of work. The simpler setting is a strong backdrop for lyrics that seem to offer both sympathy and a loving kick in the pants to someone who's stumbling through life. Hard not to like this.

Mother Mother, Tracy Bonham: In the fabulous book Everything I'm Cracked Up to Be, Jen Trynin laments the difficulty of competing for limited female alt-rock attention with Alanis Morissette. Another musician in that competition was Tracy Bonham, who may have nosed out Trynin but was never in the Alanis-osphere. After a decade (and, to the chagrin of AllMusic.com's Stephen Thomas Erlewine, only three albums), I'm starting to think I should pay more attention to her. I'm not sure that her songwriting is as consistent as Trynin's was on Cockamamie, but this song proves she has a way with words and riffs. And unlike Trynin, she has a voice that can be equal parts powerful and vulnerable, as on this song and on the great Blue Man Group effort Up to the Roof.

Mirror Song, Live: Unlike any Live song you've ever heard, even if you caught the 2003 effort Heaven, an ode to a newborn that was uncomfortably close to Creed's With Arms Wide Open. (Doesn't that song seem a little creepy now that Scott Stapp has opted for the stereotypical rock lifestyle?) This song is spare, with an acoustic guitar and some precise drum fills providing gentle prodding as Ed Kowalczyk seeks balance between ideals and practicality without gazing completely into his own navel. That's a difficult juggling act -- one that Live didn't always pull off -- but they do it here.

For What It's Worth, Rush: After 30 years of taking rock in every direction possible -- 20-minute opuses, complex synth-and-guitar arrangements and power-trio rock that requires an awful lot of practice to mimic in a garage -- Rush celebrated its 30-year career and triumphant return from the only hiatus the band ever took (that due to the deaths of Neil Peart's wife and daughter) with ... an EP of cover versions of songs older than the band itself? Yep. It shouldn't surprise anyone they burn through rock classics like Crossroads and Summertime Blues, proving that guitarist Alex Lifeson hasn't lost anything despite his curious decision to eschew solos on Vapor Trails. But this hippie-inspired cry for harmony and harmonics is the most fascinating because it's so atypically Rush, as if they've figured that the whole Ayn Rand thing doesn't really work when you get older. I can deal with the overwrought epics and Geddy Lee's long-discarded shriek, but hearing them do something different a couple of decades later gives me a reason to keep listening. They're writing new material.

I Want All of You, The Verve Pipe: One of those bands that had a hit and a couple of semi-minors but never caught on, and that's a shame because they had distinct talent. This one stands up better to repeated listens than their hit (Freshmen), mostly because lead singer Brian Vander Ark builds the drama so well.

Run to the Hills, Iron Maiden: Every couple of years, I get the chorus stuck in my head and I think this is a good song. It's not. We saw Iron Maiden (Flight of Icarus, in this case) on VH1 Classic recently, and I have no idea how anyone takes them seriously.

In a Big Country, Big Country: Live version from the Come Up Screaming album. Not the best live version I've heard, but still powerful. I wish I'd seen Big Country live. Their sound was amazing -- drums, bass and guitar thundering behind melodic riffs and Stuart Adamson's evocative voice. This one has a fun bit at the end in which Adamson introduces the band. It's tough to understand his Scottish brogue over the drum beat, but it sounds as if he says Mark Brzezicki is hammering away at the drums "as if he being paid for it," and he introduces bassist/backup vocalist Tony Butler as "the nicest man in music." (Butler and Brzezicki are also known for their bouncy beat and Butler's vocal work on Pete Townshend's Let My Love Open the Door.)

MOST PLAYED

20. Harder to Breathe, Maroon 5: Strange, because I haven't listened to it recently.

19. Our House, Madness: A new favorite of MMM Jr. and a marvelous slice of life.

18. Up to the Roof, Blue Man Group & Tracy Bonham: See above.

17. Octopus's Garden, the Beatles: Known to MMM Jr. as "Under the Sea," perhaps because he has not yet seen The Little Mermaid.

16. Mental Hopscotch, Missing Persons: Classic interplay of guitar, synth, drums and yelping vocals.

15. No Ha Parado de Llover, Mana: I know maybe five words of Spanish, but this Samples-ish song is beautiful.

14. Born of Frustration, James: The sort of soaring anthem the English do so much better than we do.

13. Hello, Goodbye, the Beatles: MMM Jr. likes it, but not as much as he should.

12. Rock Lobster, the B-52s: An MMM Jr. favorite, even if he can't pronounce it.

11. Talk of the Town, the Pretenders: A little surprising to see this up so high, considering that I never use it to pump myself up for work or working out, but it's a pleasant enough song.

10. Beginnings, Chicago: The horn section's finest work.

9. Help Me (She's Out of Her Mind), Stereophonics: The power riff that started my Stereophonics craze.

8. Fall Behind Me, the Donnas: Best guitar riff and variations since Jimmy Page's heyday, I kid you not. Great vocal performance, too.

7. "C" is for Cookie, Cookie Monster: The heavy artillery of tantrum-calmers.

6. You're A Mean One, Mr. Grinch, Thurl Ravenscroft (erroneously credited to Boris Karloff): The ultimate tantrum-calmer.

5. Flirtin' With Disaster, Molly Hatchet: No Southern rock band ever turned up the guitar riffs and growled about destruction and corruption any better than this. Great drums, too.

4. Amsterdam, Guster: I'm never not in the mood for this well-crafted pop effort from this likable band.

3. High as the Ceiling, Stereophonics: Their power-riffing best.

2. Dakota, Stereophonics. See this post.

1. Bohemian Like You, Dandy Warhols. Also mentioned in that post, but this is also an MMM Jr. favorite.




Sunday, April 09, 2006

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Sympathy for the Blue Devil

As a Duke grad and a journalist, I'm used to a fair amount of heckling. The e-mailed links telling me what's wrong with the institutions of Duke and the mainstream media. The pointed comments about everyone from Dan Rather to J.J. Redick. I've learned to respond playfully and then back away if it turns out this is one of those times in which the heckler doesn't see what's so damn funny about Rather/Redick being a prick.

It's taken some time, but I'm immune to most of it now. For years, I derived little but pain from men's basketball. I didn't enjoy the wins, in part because I was never surrounded by anyone who cared to celebrate with me, and I grimaced in anticipation of the needling after each loss. That eased over the years, and I treasured the 2001 championship. With journalism, the irritation can run deeper because critics make such blatant lies in an effort to get their spin on things, but I've learned to steer clear of the Kool-Aid dispensers.

I also see the flaws in each of these institutions, as important as they are to me. Journalism has issues -- the sensationalism of conflict, the cowardice in failing to present facts, the lack of calming context. Duke suffers at the hands of ESPN, which overexposes the men's basketball team to the point that it's simply impossible to blame viewers for turning against them. And while Duke students, contrary to popular opinion, have never been a simple gaggle of spoiled BMW drivers, Duke alumni ... well, let's admit it -- we can be a little status-conscious. I've been frustrated that Dukies don't keep in touch after graduation unless the situation can be defined as "networking."

(Hey, I'm not going to offend anyone. If you're reading this, and you're from Duke, you're obviously an exception.)

So under normal circumstances, I can generally laugh off or nod along with criticisms.

This week, it's been far too painful.

The lacrosse situation (check with Brendan Nyhan for the best roundup of coverage -- clearly a case in which a blogger is outshining journalists in terms of connecting the dots) seems to get worse every day from any number of angles. And there are plenty of parties who never set foot in that house who need to answer some questions.

The more I think about it, the less I think someone on the team should "come forward." (OK, if someone committed or assisted an actual assault, a confession would help, but I'm being realistic.) What are they expected to say? "I wasn't there, but I heard it was this guy"? I'm no lawyer, but I don't think that's going to fly in court. And I doubt it would help much with the investigation.

And Duke's administration is in a situation to which I can relate as a journalist. A lot of people want to believe the worst about Duke, for a variety of reasons. So for these people, this can't be a simple problem of a few cretins on an out-of-control team. It has to be institutional. And Duke, usually the poster child of "political correctness gone wild," has responded the way journalists so often do. The school is wringing its hands in public, promising to get at the roots of problems it has tacitly admitted -- not necessarily with evidence.

The media, to put it mildly, haven't helped. A good juicy story with overtones of race and class is too good for the cable hounds to pass up. So they're camped out in front of the Chapel.

The angle they're missing: This problem goes far beyond Duke. It's a problem of male athletes and their entitlement attitudes toward women. It could even go beyond athletes, judging by the way Capitol Hill men treat women as ornaments and/or outlets for whatever deviance their button-down lifestyles don't allow. (Oh, you thought it was just a couple of guys you heard about on the news? Guess again.)

But you probably won't hear that angle. It requires research beyond parking a news van in front of the Chapel. It complicates their hot story. And it's a story we're going to be stuck with for some time.

(I think journalists learn a lot about their profession when the reporting hits home. Every oversimplification can make us cringe, and that should make us realize the importance of getting the whole picture in our own stories.)

Given that, Duke could've used some good news this week. And we were less than 10 seconds away from having it. Then a Maryland player hit an impossible fadeaway 3-pointer over the best shot-blocker in women's basketball, and it all fell apart.

Everyone has been fawning over Maryland since then, especially here in the Washington metro sprawl. And I can't really blame them. It was an incredible effort.

But few people realize what a tragedy it is for Duke. That's because very few people have been following this team since its first baby steps out of the ACC cellar. The injuries and lack of support that kept the team from finding success under Debbie Leonard. The years of slowly building to elite level, only to hit various stumbling blocks. The four-overtime loss in 1995, the closest call as Duke failed to reach the Sweet 16 until 1998. The miserable loss in the 1999 final after a terrific run past traditional powers Old Dominion, Tennessee and Georgia. The Jackie Stiles buzzsaw that left Duke's Georgia Schweitzer in tears in 2001. Two more Final Four losses in 2003 and 2004.

So that's five straight Elite 8 performances, four of the last seven Final Fours. Since making the Sweet 16 for the first time in 1998, they haven't missed it. In the ACC, it's a similar story -- after winning their first tournament title in 2000, they did it four more times. Not bad, considering their all-time ACC Tournament record as of 1994 was 2-17.

Consistent excellence, years in the making. And they were finally poised to capitalize on it -- a couple of blowout wins, a heroic win over Connecticut IN Connecticut, an easy Final Four win over LSU. Then a 13-point second-half lead against Maryland that was still four points in the last minute.

This team isn't overexposed like the men. Far from it. SportsCenter's "Ultimate Highlight" last weekend showed far more shots of eliminated North Carolina than it did of Duke. (Stuart Scott doing the editing?) Everyone knows Geno Auriemma and Pat Summitt. No one knows Gail Goestenkors.

And that's a pity. Coach G helped usher in a new generation of women's basketball coaches that was unafraid to show a little enthusiasm and smile every once in a while. She impressed the heck out of me the very first time I saw her team play, pressing UNC Wilmington into oblivion and being as friendly as she could be to the handful of reporters who gathered in the nearly empty gym.

So this week, I've been hearing from people who couldn't name two players on Maryland's team and have probably seen less than 20 minutes of women's basketball in their lives. I could tell them Sheryl Swoopes made all the difference in the game, and they'd nod along.

That'll pass, of course. People will move on to something else.

We're about due for another scandal in journalism, aren't we?

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Happy April Fools Day

It makes me so happy that TV's smartest sitcom (assuming Arrested Development is indeed done) is so well-marketed online. You may have seen a couple of The Office's fake "The More You Know" ads this week, but they have many, many more on their site.