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.