Monday, December 30, 2013

Arctic Monkeys: AM

After two albums of sometimes impenetrable hype, and two that were patently "not for everybody" (myself included at times) we have one that absolutely hits the sweet spot. The album is called AM. It's not quite self-titled: it's an initial, a convenient shorthand that suggests all but doesn't tell. It's also an early part of the morning when you might be tiptoeing home from a conquest, or kept up wondering about a desired one's activities. Or maybe it's a throwback to the heyday of early 70's radio, before the internet diversified and compartmentalized everyone's tastes in music, when it paid to be the band who did it all best. As much as I love those first couple albums, this one doesn't work too hard to relive past glories, it doesn't sound much like anything else on the racks right now. And it rocks.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Being Kevin McCallister: Memories of Home Alone 2 Lost in New York

Why was this everything we wanted back in the early 90s? Why was there a mania for movies and TV shows about young, crafty, smart-alecky kids taking on the world of adults and winning? Whether it was Macaulay Culkin, Bart Simpson, or Zack Morris representing the high school segment. They seemed to be kids like us, but they had all the answers. They always knew what to say, but they never lost sight of the values a kid would hold. The ruse that Kevin McCallister uses to bluff his way into the Plaza Hotel past the likes of Tim Curry and Rob Schneider is impossibly convoluted, basically comprising a commercial for the Tiger Talkboy, which never could possibly live up to the shenanigans presented here (because, see, we weren't crafty and individualistic daring young kids like Kevin.) We wanted to be that smart.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

How I Met Your Mother, "Bass Player Wanted"

Setting an entire season of TV around a single weekend, largely abandoning familiar sets and plots, is a pretty bold move. While I can basically understand any backlash the season has gotten, it's hard for me to point to any particular episode and not say "That was a great episode of TV." As much as you can argue that having Marshall spend half the season stuck in a car with Sherri Shepherd, even those scenes mostly justified themselves, episode-to-episode, with comedic punch. There's a rotten attitude that sets in around long-running series, when we've been spoiled with years of good television, and we're only able to compare the show to its highest points, rather than what else is actually on TV (still not much better than HIMYM.)

Monday, December 16, 2013

Sleigh Bells: Bitter Rivals

You're either in or you're out. No middle ground. To even debate it is pointless. To review a Sleigh Bells record as you would any other band's, to situate it in the context of regular-ass pop music, expecting hooks and hits singles is to completely miss the point. To try to graft your preconceived notions of what music even is onto one of these albums is a guarantee of failure. Sleigh Bells comes from out of nowhere, attacks from all sides, then disappears into the night leaving you rattled and afraid for your life: still breathing just enough to carry on somehow.

Is that overstating it a bit? Maybe, but its lack of critical vulnerability is no joke. It's not here to fucking please you. It's here to incite a mental and emotional breakdown, using intense rhythm, primal beat, every production trick in the book (and some new ones) and the lovely voice of Alexis Krauss. It's uncompromising bu not unrecognizable. After three albums of doing things more or less the same way, with subtle variations (album 2, Reign of Terror, was actually quite pleasurable) they still seem revolutionary and inspired. Sometimes they sound like sex, or war, or, on "Minnie," like the satanic church: all three viable inspirations for great rock.

It's a challenge to your sensibilities. Maybe you're already the type of person who would like this sort of thing. Me, I had to get used to it, and even still I find it a bit tough to chew, but it stands on its own with that mold-breaking mix of the ugly and pretty, the ragged and the clean, that strange chaos-embracing alchemy I have come expect, even love from these folks. They expose the madness that underlies noisemaking music but that our pitiful human psyches feel the need to put into sanitized, filtered order for consumption. "Fuck that," they say, and make all the racket they want. Even the softer ones seem like a bit of an assault.

You can take all this as a recommendation, or a warning. I think it's a fair summation of what this album, what this band, is an does. Me, I need a challenge now and again. I need to be rattled and shaken to my core. The day they fail to do that is the day I'll skip a Sleigh Bells record. This is the real.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Hulk Hogan vs. Andre the Giant: What'cha gonna do, brother?

Oh no, is he really going to be talking about wrestling?

At its core, pro wrestling is a storytelling medium-slash-genre, where basic interpersonal problems are solved by fighting. It's a medium where plot (such as it is) of often shortchanged in order to satisfy the need for starpower and consistency, and where status quo is basically king. It is an ongoing, neverending soap opera with a rotating cast of characters that change personalities and allegiances on a regular basis, but the same few people always seem to be around in the spotlight. It's confusing and off-putting to start, and then too addicting to quit even when you hate it. It's also at its best exciting, visceral, funny, and unpredictable. In short, it has many of the best and worst qualities of comic books, another medium from my youth that still fascinates me as an adult.

In the ongoing metastory of World Wrestling Entertainment, some 44 individuals have held their highest position, as WWE Champion (eight of the 25 men who have held the equivalent World Heavyweight Championship never held the WWE Championship, but most of them count as evidence that the WHC hasn't been equal in years.) And yet, no matter how often the title changes hands, most of its holders are just temporary fillers between some great superstar that comes along once in a generation: "The Man," whose presence guarantees tickets sold, merchandise moved, and eyeballs on TV sets. Some of the best names in the company history, despite being champion at some point, weren't "The Man," but just there to provide him with support and/or worthy opponents. And for the most part, they aren't even contiguous: the old Ric Flair axiom that in order to be the man, you've gotta (woo!) beat the man doesn't always hold up. Sometimes the company has spent years trying every different direction before it finally finds one for this generation.

Every so often, on this blog, I'll indulge my inner 12-year-old (who started out on the internet rambling about wrestling before getting bored of that, and finding other things to get bored of,) and take a look at a moment in wrestling history from a storytelling perspective, with an eye on questions of who, exactly, the story belongs to, how it was built, and what the outcome was.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Does it Rock: Pup, "Reservoir"

I haven't been stirred by a punk song in a long while, but watching the Pup guys cut loose like this makes me feel like this is the way punk should be done: screaming, unifying, triumphant, scolding, lashing out, taking no shit and offering none in return. Not to mention, they manage to wrap it all up in a pretty fuckin' awesome chorus. Love this.

Friday, December 6, 2013

The Five: Opening Tracks (The SOTW Years)

Between 2011 and 2013, I reviewed like a hundred or so albums at Sound of the Week and even though I'm less than a month into my new endeavor I'm totally not above recycling content from it just for kicks. Actually, I've been thinking a lot about the concept of opening tracks, how to really get an album started off on the right foot, and here are five of my favourite ones from the albums I reviewed there during those years.

Tokyo Police Club, "Favourite Food" from Champ

Champ was one of the first albums I had heard in years that I could listen to compulsively from beginning to end. That icy dialtone buzz that opens the track is a neat trick, leading into a strummed, slacker-philosophical vocal that marks the band's trademark, then ramping up the kinetic energy. Read More

The Strokes, "Machu Picchu" from Angles

I'm a big advocate for the Strokes' fourth album (and their second and fifth... the first doesn't need my help and the third knows what it did.) Its opening track sets the pace for the album immediately, gratifyingly between hard rock and danceable futuristic funk. Read More.

Foo Fighters, "Bridge Burning" from Wasting Light

Wasting Light was a no-bullshit hard and heavy rock album that wasn't too far into any one genre to cut off its mainstream accessibility. Almost all of its tracks managed to walk the line between off-the-wall rock and clean-cut radio formula, and at a certain point, so long as you can still rock out to it, you've gotta respect it. And brother, you can rock out to this. Read more.

Jack White, "Missing Pieces" from Blunderbuss

The opening shot from Jack White's solo debut asserts both his new band-oriented direction, his lyrical voice, and his twisted sense of arty humour. It's a slinky, sly, paranoid track that's both cynical and silly. Read more.

Japandroids, "The Nights of Wine and Roses" from Celebration Rock

The sound of crackling fireworks opens this opus, an ode to drinking and losing time screwing around and living in the present. I've never figured out whether Japandroids were serious or critical in their depictions of "the good times" but at a certain point it doesn't matter. They dedicated their album to the cause of the shout-along chorus, and by God did they stick it. Read more.

Monday, December 2, 2013

How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Keep Loving The Room (The Disaster Artist Review)

Tommy Wiseau has said that the thesis of The Room is a line he delivers in the film, that "If a lot of people loved each other, the world would be a better place to live." Greg Sestero, who plays Mark and has now written a book about his time with Wiseau, offers an alternative meaning from one of Mark's lines: "I just can't figure women out. Sometimes they're just too smart. Sometimes they're flat-out stupid. Other times they're just evil." That attitude toward women pervades the film, and its illogical combination of thoughts basically comprises its entire aesthetic. Thousands of articles have already been written over the past decade about how The Room is an amazing once-in-a-lifetime cocktail of all the different ways a film can go wrong. Forget "so bad it's good." The Room is so awful it's amazing. Unsurprisingly, The Disaster Artist, Greg Sestero's account of its production, is a fascinating read that is loaded with unbelievable details, and extremely well-told.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

R.E.M., "Life and How To Live It"

As you may have gleaned from one of the final posts I made on my old blog, I have been listening to a lot of R.E.M. lately, and in fact had a rather good talk the other night with James Leask about R.E.M. in general and Fables of the Reconstruction in particular. In my write-up of their 2-disc retrospective set (Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage,) I mentioned being especially taken with this cut from Fables. Through streaming, I found this live version, available on the 25th Anniversary edition of Document, where Michael Stipe begins the recording by relating the backstory of the song, which I first read in the liner notes of "Part Lies..." and it really enhances the song, even though most R.E.M. songs can barely even be said to be about what their about. Being able to suture together that backstory with the cryptic lyrics of the song really does it for me, as does the overall feel of the song, which is exuberant and dreamlike, like much of R.E.M.'s work in general. It's such a lively, vibrant tune, with such an airborne feeling to it, really kinetic stuff. (That bit when everything but the guitar drops out? Oomph.) And it's about this one thing, mythologizing this strange outsider figure - a perfect figure to base an R.E.M. song around - but it could be anything. It has that meaning, and then whatever meaning you bring to it. Like a dream. (Which is, incidentally, why I never thought twice about why R.E.M. chose their name, even though they've often said it doesn't mean anything.)

Monday, November 25, 2013

Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Special: The Day of the Doctor

"Being that this is a story that deals with the hardest and most regrettable decision the Doctor ever made, it would have been really easy to make this a dour, glum, depressing story, instead not only is it positively inspiring, it’s fun as all hell."

Read the rest of the article at Comics! The Blog

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Lou Reed, Susan Boyle, Christmas & You

I'll admit to having a fascination for Susan Boyle that stops just short of actually enjoying her music. While the "adult contemporary treatment of pop-rock mainstays" has been well-worn by many artists, Ms. Boyle is likely the only one who counts a Lou Reed, Crowded House and Tears for Fears song in her repertoire. The contemporary-ish songs she chooses to splice in with her musical-and-standard material are eclectic enough to nearly constitute an artistic voice of her own (rather than, say, of her producers.) Does she just have such a great affection for Lou Reed's canon that she couldn't wait to cover him when she finally got her record deal? Or did someone put the sheet music for this in front of her and say "Here, go nuts." I'm not so cynical to think the latter, but I can't imagine the former. So if nothing else, I think it's amazing that somehow these two could-not-be-more-disparate artists crossed paths.

And when I say they "crossed paths," I don't mean that Susan Boyle appropriated his song and ruined it. I mean Lou Reed directed the music video for it. There was literally a meeting where Lou Reed and Susan Boyle discussed her interpretation of his song. So whatever else, this has his stamp of approval.

On the surface, this is a perfectly innocuous song. If you didn't know better, it might actually seem to make more sense coming from a matronly reality show contestant, the lyrics being harmless fluff about drinking sangria in the park and going to the zoo, although the lyric "I thought I was someone else / Someone good" does seem to come out of nowhere. Besides that, there's no reason this song, in and of itself, isn't suitable for the septuagenarians who typically turn out in droves to hear her stuff.

Here's the thing: As performed by Lou Reed, it's nearly the exact same song. Susan Boyle hasn't done anything to it that wasn't pretty much in the original recording. On paper, it's all piano with some mild symphonic flourishes that grow steadily as the song nears its end. The lyrics are all the same. SuBo's voice is more classically good than Lou's. Her take is more polished. How is it really different?

It's all about context. This may sound obvious, but when you think of Lou Reed, you don't think of "non-specifically heartwarming music." You think of heroin, bondage and transvestites. Knowing anything about Lou Reed automatically causes one to build a subtext for the song in their mind. The lyrics give minimal instruction as to what shape that's supposed to take. As the listener, you have to do the heavy lifting in ascribing meaning to the individual lyrics, and even if you don't come up with something concrete you've at least exercised your imagination in the form of a pop ballad. What was lifeless on paper becomes very weighty in execution.

So what are we to make of Susan Boyle's take? If you were in a band and you covered this song, your audience might likely have enough familiarity with Lou Reed to maintain that connection, or at least you might form it yourself with your own performance. This is not the intended audience for Susan Boyle, though. The overlap between the two audiences is approximately 0. Its inclusion on Susan Boyle's first Christmas album implies one of two things:

1. Ms. Boyle considers it to be a genuine song about a having perfect day
2. Ms. Boyle's family Christmases are drug-soaked pits of despair

I'm leaning toward the former, although I refuse to discount the latter.

So we're left with Boyle's 100% earnest, stunningly literal reading. But that's okay. Just because I'm not a Susan Boyle fan doesn't mean I don't respect her voice or her need to have some material. On some level, I respect her for choosing songs that haven't been done by her contemporaries. Like I said, this one has Reed's actual involvement, so it's valid on some level, and even though the words themselves mean little if anything coming from her, the Boylemaniacs out there aren't really there for deep insights into the human condition. On a cold, calculated level, this is brilliant. This song becomes the exact place where art and commerce divide.

She got famous for singing a song about starving to death in poverty, and all anyone heard was "Oh, that's a nice song." It's both saddening and amazing that you can do that just by singing a song exactly the way it was written. I'm halfway between galled and impressed. I can't wait to see how Ms. Boyle's cover of "Heart-Shaped Box" turns out. Hate on, haters: SuBo's gonna do SuBo.

Although it's interesting to note that somehow, its usage in a PS4 commercial retains more of the spirit of the original.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Doctor Who: Night of the Doctor is predictably rad

On a dark and stormy night, a good man, pushed to the brink, made a hard decision... one that proved fatal for some, salvation for others.

I think it's good that this mini-episode, leading into the 50th Anniversary "Day of the Doctor" special, takes a look at the beginning of the John Hurt "War Doctor" incarnation. It incorporates Paul McGann, who played the Doctor for a hot minute in a TV movie that is mostly remembered because Doctor Who fans never forget anything. The McGann version is recognizably the Doctor, eager to help a crashing spaceship and quipping and whatnot, but this setting is not the one we're familiar with. This is the heady days of the Time War, before the Doctor joined up, in fact he was a conscientious objector, but that doesn't keep a crashing pilot from declining his help because he's a Time Lord, and his ilk are tearing the universe apart in their war with the Daleks.

Agree or disagree with the Doctor's reasoning that the only way to end the war is to jump into it? Well, we know the Doctor, generally a man of peace did fight in the war, so you know, it had to happen somehow. So I'm with it. I'm also with the fact that he turned specifically into a regeneration who would be "a warrior" by a bunch of witches with magic chalices, because why the hell not? Metal as fuck, I say.

The headline here, for me, is that a nice chunk of the Doctor Who mythology (such as it is) has been put into place. Generally speaking, I like the idea that the Time War was a hazy, chaotic time, that we can never get the full picture of, that left him scarred and angry. That he did things, unspeakable things. The Time War is the backstory for this entire series and it doesn't require much more fleshing out than that, until you bring John Hurt in and start asking about what, exactly, he did during that war, and what makes him different from other Doctors.

The point, I suppose, is to get to a point where the Ninth Doctor, at the end of Series 1, deciding not to obliterate everything, is a huge character moment. As John Hurt, he's not there yet. The premise for "The Day of the Doctor" nicely averts one of the pitfalls of prequels by having your younger self be the villain. I thought "Night of the Doctor" was pretty rad in that respect, showing in a very economically short clip how the Doctor could be pulled to that point, and getting us excited for what comes after. Now I've spent more time thinking and writing about it than it took to write it.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Attack of the Hell Pirates: Amazing X-Men #1

Jason Aaron's Wolverine & the X-Men was the book that convinced me to get back into the X-Men, after tapping out in the aftermath of Grant Morrison's run. I read one issue and decided this was the X-Men comic that I had, in effect, wanted to read for my entire life. IT was fresh, it was bright, it was emotionally true without being overly angsty, it had a legion of young and new characters and an interesting configuration of old ones. It was hip-deep in the inherent insanity that goes along with being the X-Men, from being built on a foundation of Krakoa, to having a tween Hellfire Club, to featuring a battle against Wolverine's time-traveling cowboy brother in the Savage Land. Aaron not only gleefully mines the insanity, he pitches in his own. (I don't believe Dog Logan's time-traveling abilities were ever brought up in the pages of Origin, but it's been a while since I read it. This only improves the character) Whereas WXM is largely focused on the students at the Jean Grey School, AmXM takes the rich cast that makes up the staff and turns the spotlight on them. And as that cover there implies, we get Nightcrawler back.

How I Met Your Mother: "The Lighthouse" & "Platonish"

I knew flashback episodes were going to have to play a part in How I Met Your Mother's 9th season, because as good as they're doing, setting the entire season around Barney and Robin's Farhampton wedding gets a little restrictive. It becomes a matter, then, of making the flashbacks count, because in theory you've already said what you need to say before getting to the wedding setting, there shouldn't be much need to revisit or rewrite history just so you can make use of the Maclaren's set.

"Platonish" makes a good case for itself by setting itself at the moment Barney came up with the idea for "The Robin," the play that caused Robin to accept his approval, which we couldn't have seen at the time. It involves Barney accepting (and accomplishing) a series of challenges from Lily and Robin, which culminates in, shockingly enough, meeting Cristin Milioti's "Mother" character, which leads him to a revelation about his feelings for Robin, a great way to tie together the past, the present, and the Mother. Ted, meanwhile, is forced to face his own still-unresolved feelings during a Harlem Globetrotters game (where he and Marshall actively root for the Washington Generals.) The combination of these two stories felt like a really classic episode, one of the best of the season so far.

Thematically, it's a strong episode, and features a pretty good guest appearance from Bryan Cranston, back in his role as Hammond Druthers, proving his comedic chops haven't dulled in his years of playing drama. How I Met Your Mother is a comedy that can get away without making me laugh too loudly in certain episodes, because I dig the characters so much. Yes, there are laughs, particularly from Barney and Marshall & Ted's frustrations with the Generals coach, but for me it was all about welding together these last bits of framework. "How (everyone else) Met Your Mother (apparently before I did.)"

For what it's worth, I really enjoyed last week's episode. It provided a textbook perfect example of how to perfectly execute (several) running gags: an episode-long runner about Robin's mom, a twist on the season-long runner "Thank you, Linus," and, perhaps most perfectly, a series favourite, its usage of The Proclaimers' "500 Miles (I'm Gonna Be.)" This is an amazing use of the running gag because it doesn't just rely on familiarity ("Ha, they're playing that song again,") but sets up a specific situation in which it is significant that that song eventually plays. They put their running gags to work, and it's damn amazing.

Oh, and I suppose, if you're going to show a proposal between two characters who "technically" haven't met yet, you really should set it to Otis Redding's "Try a Little Tenderness." Because damn, son.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

All New, All Different

Or at least somewhat newer, mostly the same, but hopefully not too much.

I've been maintaining the same music blog for about three years now. I like it, I try to do good work there, I'm frequently unsatisfied, but it's helped me get into a lot of stuff I might not otherwise have.

The periods of time in which I find myself uninterested in updating it have gotten longer and more frequent. I think there's just something wrong about my approach to the site. I gave it to myself as a project, I took it more or less as far as it was going to go, and now it's starting to feel like too much of a chore, so I shirk it. I go long periods between updates because (whether this is true or not,) I need time to think about the music I'm listening to. Or nothing good's come up recently. Or I can't quite nail down the exact perfect parsing of the album. (I wrote four different drafts of my recent review of R.E.M.'s Best-Of, and that's pretty damn well-trodden territory.) More and more of it feels like it could be coming from anybody, and what's worse, not necessarily anybody good. Sometimes it is good, but sometimes, man... I just don't know.

I flirted a bit with starting up a TV blog. Sound reasoning: "I like TV. I watch plenty of TV. I might even know more about TV than I do about music." But shit, dude, who has the time? Again, where am I getting the time to watch and then write about all these things I like? I just started doing night shifts half the week, so I'm somewhat behind on a couple of shows I love. What's the shelf-life of a TV recap? I dunno. It's not printed on the label.

But at the same time, I don't want to do nothing. I don't want to say nothing. For as long as I've had the internet I've had the compulsion to try to join every discourse I can - who hasn't? I'm currently doing NaNoWriMo, which is taking up a lot of my time, but I would still love to keep talking about things, preferably in long boring paragraphs. And I like to do it on Blogspot because I've had this account for a decade and it seems to work for me. (I don't wanna start all over with WordPress and Tumblr is garbage beyond small snippets.)

So I think - I think, because I'm somebody who frequently tries new projects and then gives up on them - I've got the solution. I think it's time to put SOTW to rest, nix the separate blog for TV, and just break down the walls a bit. I'm even putting my name on top so that I don't try so hard to sound like somebody else. It was fortuitous (or lucky as hell) that my usual internet identity was still available as a URL. Otherwise this whole thing could have gone sideways immediately (instead of 6 weeks from now.)

The rules - such as they are - will be this:

  • At least one post every week. If I write a post on Sunday, I can happily neglect the site for 13 days if need be.
  • One topic per post, no grab bag musings (unless the prizes inside are super cool.) That's generally what Twitter's for.
  • Topic could be just about anything I'd Tweet about (music, TV, movies, comics, even pro wrestling but I'll try not to because I know that's ratings death, thanks CTB.)
  • Try really really hard not to write about the same thing twice in a row.
  • No splashing
  • No feeding after midnight
  • Other pop culture references
So, that's my resolution for now. Welcome to the new Scotto Blog. Hope we survive the experience.