Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Web of Insanity: Spider-Verse Thoughts

Comic readers have an insatiable appetite for alternate universes. Whether it was DC's old multiverse and imaginary stories, Marvel's What If's and Ages of Apocalypses, or DC's new multiverse, people who read comics will never, never, ever, never ever stop thinking "Hey, I love these characters, but what if they were different?" Would they hold true to the core principles and remain true to the essense of the original, or will they be dark and grim and gritty - and in so doing be way more marketable? Being published continuously for decades on end will have that effect I suppose. And then once you've racked up a sufficient number of alternate versions of your well-known character, you start to wonder, "What if some insanely high-stakes event were to occur that caused all the different versions of these characters to have to interact with each other?" That's when shit gets real.

The current Spider-Man event is called "Spider-Verse." It seems to have been going on forever, gradually building until it became the all-consuming focus of my comic-reading life. In reality it's only been a few months, but this has been a very long few months and I am not sure when the story ends. Not that I'm checking my watch exactly, although there are times.

The premise of the story is this: All the Spider-Men and Women from across the Multiverse are being hounded by a group called the Inheritors, which feast of the life-force of "Spider-totems," ie people with spider powers. They go around killing and (after a fashion) ingesting different versions of Spider-Man, many of which have been created over the years, and some specifically for this story.

Academically, this is kind of fascinating. It's a concept that explores the notion of Spider-Man's uniqueness, that is the "real" Spider-Man whose adventures have been published monthly-or-more since the 1960's. He's not unique, there are thousands out there who are like him either because they are an alternate Peter Parker or because they are a different person with spider-powers (shout out to Spider-Gwen,) but he also must somehow be unique, because he's the one whose adventures we've been following. We are attached to him. The creators must some how prove to us, the reader, why we care more for the Peter we know than some other one. It's, incidentally, the same concept that was recently explored in Superior Spider-Man, the year during which Dr. Octopus inhabited Peter's body and acted as Spider-Man on his behalf. The question at the core of that was why was Peter a better Spidey than Ock was?

It's either a fun postmodern examination of a trope only really found in mainstream comics, or a story that disappears very far up its own ass and is inaccessible to anyone but the most hardcore obsessive reader. So, you know, it's a modern superhero comic.

On the one hand, the main story is kind of bleak. The bad guys are murderous vampire types who hunt versions of the protagonist for sport. They rack up a lot of kills in any given appearance: many Spider-Men exist as fodder. It's pretty dark. In the most recent installment, we meet the chief antagonist, Solus, who has the ultimate power of a multiverse-conquering God and shows it when he handily defeats a version of Spider-Man who has the powers of a single-universe God and, you know, eats his soul or whatever. The odds have been stacked impossibly high against our heroes, to the point where you wonder if it's possible to resolve this story without some kind of cheapo ending.

On the other hand, it's led to some pretty great moments, from Miles Morales and Ultimate TV Comics Peter Parker teaming up to find 60's cartoon Spider-Man, or the debut of the new Spider-Woman series by Dennis Hopeless, which is surprisingly readable for its own merits despite being part of this whole hullaballoo. (And let's not forget, again, that this whole event has added Spider-Gwen to the landscape, and Spider-Gwen rules.) There's a punk Spider-Man, a Japanese robot Spider-Man, Spider-Man Noir, and of course Peter Porker the Spectacular Spider-Ham. As bizarre and chaotic as it is, it, like the X-Men's Battle for the Atom last year, endeavors to be a celebration of the patchwork of insanity that a comic franchise becomes after so many years of existence. In the end, I think it's a labour of love, whether it winds up working or not.

Lastly, by design or not, this whole story bears an odd resemblance to the final arc of my beloved 90's Spider-Man cartoon, where the Beyonder and Madame Web recruited multiversal Spider-Men to defeat an insane Spider-Carnage who was bent on destroying the multiverse. In that one too, we learned there was something special about the Spidey we know and love. I guess that all just means that the longer these things go, the more reiterations we get, the more new spins on the old webs.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Science Rules: Andy Weir's The Martian

The other week, a spaceprobe landed on a flipping comet. What was previously only possible in Bruce Willis movies is now reality, and the probe has since learned all sorts of scientific stuff from this mission... I assume. I don't know what it was for, I don't really follow the news, but I'd be satisfied to hear they did it just because they could. Once thing that people seem to agree on lately is that space is cool: Neil DeGrasse Tyson is cool, that Mars rover guy with the mohawk is cool, Chris Hadfield is cool (who, I should always point out, went to the same high school as me, but you know, before I was born.) The whole concept of looking to the stars is cool these days in a way it hadn't been for a while. What The Martian by Andy Weir does, besides tell a gripping tale of survival, is tap into that zeitgeist, that thirst that we as a people now have for the subject matter that we didn't a short while ago. Not just by being about space travel, but by being about space travel in the way that draws on what we all find so fascinating about it.

A lot of that is up to the main character, Astronaut Mark Watney, who is left stranded on Mars when his crew believes him dead. Most of the book is written in the form of logs Watney writes upon finding himself the sole inhabitant of the red planet. Given that, in order to make it to outer space, you need to have a huge base of knowledge (Watney is a botanist and engineer) and he relies on a lot of this knowledge to facilitate his survival, the book in concept runs perilously close to being a dry lecture on how one might conceivably survive on Mars. Watney is written with a goofy charm, though: a quirky sense of humour that lands him just on the good side of "snarky Big Bang Theory character." At one point he has to describe a very wordy unit of measurement, so he chooses to abbreviate it to "pirate-ninja." He's self-effacing and vulnerable, aware of the gravity (haa) of his situation, and sure intimidated by it, but never overwhelmed by its hopelessness. So he becomes a guy we are eager to hear from, root for, and relate to... which it makes it easier to read attentively when he's describing the process of converting oxygen and hydrogen into water, or farming potatoes in the habitat. Why he has potatoes on Mars is one of the bigger leaps the book asks us to take, but is pretty necessary to believe in for the story to happen.

So yes, while there's a lot of hard science in the book (which I can only assume is reasonably accurate) it never drags, never bewilders, never loses the point or falls too in love with the idea with explaining the gadgetry and methodology. It retains forward momentum, and while it doesn't expect its readers to be experts, it doesn't aim itself at idiots either: you picked up a book about a guy surviving on Mars, you're going to learn how this guy survives on Mars, dammit!

The book has an equal reverence for science and human determination - basically the recipe for an astronaut. Like, if you're not into hearing what an awesome bunch of people astronauts are, (crazy bastards to blast into space in giant bombs basically just to look at rocks) - and even ground control gets into the mix - this is decidedly not the book for you. Luckily, as we know now, science is pretty damn cool, and is a favourite subject of a large number of cool people.

Come for the content, stay for the tone. As much as the situation is dire, on a fairly grandiose scale, its view never slips from the very human, eye-level perspective on Watney, and later the people charged with helping to save him. In fact, I'm actually a little disappointed that Ridley Scott picked it up to adapt, with Matt Damon in the lead role, because that feels like they're taking a fun, quirky story and trying to wring a prestige picture out of it (not to mention there's not a ton of action and thrills in the idea of Watney riding a 20 km/h rover for days on end.) The project threatens to unsettle everything that makes the book what it is. It would make a great cult film, though.

I do have some nitpicks of my own, which have nothing to do with the scientific content. I could have done with an Epilogue rather than the novel's somewhat abrupt ending, but that ending is consistent with the concerns of the book. The other nitpick threatens to unravel the whole thing: at one point CNN is described as airing a regular half-hour program called "The Watney Report." In reality, CNN covered the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 around the clock for weeks on end with absolutely no developments to report on, so it's safe to say the entire network would be the Watney Network.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Just a Way To Hide Your Face: Doctor Who Series 8 Thoughts

I had been writing weekly recaps for Comics! The Blog, but eased back when it became clear they were doing a pretty good job covering it themselves.

"Never trust a hug. It's just a way to hide your face."

Like a lot of long-running sci-fi series, it sometimes feels like Doctor Who can do nothing right. Depending on who you ask, the show is either being run by the wrong guy, stars the wrong guy, has the wrong actress playing his friend, leans too hard on romantic relationships or not hard enough, is too scary, too corny, too episodic, too serialized, too British, too old-fashioned, too pleased with itself. It can be hard to engage as a member of the fandom because more and more it's feeling like everyone who loves Doctor Who hates Doctor Who.

I'm not just talking about the often very valid criticisms about showrunner Steven Moffat's style, and his tricky relationship with his viewing public. I think in general a lot of people want a lot of different things from Doctor Who: because the show can be a lot of different things and over the course of its history - not just its 50-year existence but even since returning to TV in the form we now recognize - it has. Sometimes it's romantic and sweet, and sometimes it's dark and traumatizing. Sometimes it's corny, sometimes it's whimsical. Sometimes you get Weeping Angels, sometimes you get Slitheen.

Like, I've learned to be pretty forgiving of a show whose first major alien menace of the 21st Century was a bunch of farting aliens who looked like evil fat monster babies.

Series 8 bent the show against some of my preferred traits: in general a lot of time was spent unpacking the relationship between Clara and the Doctor, when I'd usually rather just take it as read and let the show get out of its own way. Did Clara need to sulk off at the end of "Kill The Moon" when she was going to come back the next week and decide she did want to stay on the TARDIS afterwards? Did we need the constant clashing between the Doctor and Danny? Did the Doctor need to be such a miserable dick the whole time?

I twisted in my seat as this season-long character arc played out week after week, and yet with a few exceptions I found myself enjoying the individual episodes. A lot. Most of the season was exceptionally good, whether it was the high adventure of "Robot of Sherwood," the existentially creepy "Listen," or the more conventionally terrifying "Flatline." "Time Heist" was a lot of fun, and "Mummy on the Orient Express" was basically pitch-perfect in its blend of imagery, terror, action and mystery, with the Doctor struggling to save a trainload of people and ultimately throwing himself on the grenade.

And what about the finale? What about giving the fanbase its first gender-bent Time Lord/Lady in "Missy?" What about the finale fate of Danny Pink, or the Brigadier for that matter? As Cyberman plots go, it was pretty good. As Master plots go, it oddly didn't go quite far enough over the top, because the Simm incarnation was such a good fit for the high camp of Russell T. Davies' era, and Missy more befits the sly, low-key femme fatale favoured by Moffat (when she tells you she's bananas you don't quite believe it in the way you did when Simm ran around singing along to the Scissor Sisters.) Yet if it wasn't my favourite story of the year, it provides enough material to talk about, and look at that: fiery discussions are being held all over the internet as we speak as to whether aspects a, b, c and d were good, great, or abominable. (For what it's worth, I'm glad we got Female Master before we got Female Doctor.) You don't spend that much time picking something apart if you don't absolutely love it.

Along the way, Peter Capaldi distinguished his performance from his predecessors in a most expected way. He's older, he's curmudgeonly, he's not really a people person. He's prone to insensitive remarks about Clara's appearance that many in the audience find legitimately offensive. (I think they were shooting for endearingly callous, ended up with something closer to genuinely hurtful.) The TV landscape doesn't need another Hard Man Making The Tough Choices™, but with the Twelfth Doctor, we've got enough reassurance that the grizzled exterior still masks two hearts that beat for humanity. And there's something weirdly adorable about his aversion to hugging.

You have to really love Doctor Who to hate on it. You have to care about the fate of this franchise, which is always in flux and at any moment feels like it's just a few degrees away from becoming something you can't stand anymore. Amid all the criticism of the direction, the performances, the characters' behaviours and everything else, there's a protectiveness that comes with really liking something and not wanting to lose it. We want it to remain the same as it was when we first came to it, and more than that we want it to be better. But hey, it's still only a show.

Personally, I often get the urge to snipe back, "Don't like it? Stop watching it," but that doesn't really engage with the weird complicated feeling of being a Doctor Who fan. It's pragmatic, but not a helpful thing to say and I know that, but I hope people do know why they are still watching it, that they are getting something out of it beyond just new material to complain about. My hope is that everyone can sit back, either now or when the DVDs come out, and realize that this was actually a pretty great 12 hours of television. It's fair to demand a lot from something you love, and I think we all want the show to be exciting, scary, life-affirming and above all forward-thinking. Just don't let your memory of the show be defined solely by the things you don't like about it. That can't be healthy.

In any case, the concept of the Doctor teaming up with Santa Claus seems like a damn brilliant idea to me, so I'm excited for that.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Life and Legend of André the Giant: Review

Few subjects seem as appropriate to being told in graphic novel form as the life of André the Giant. It's almost too easy and obvious to say he was larger than life, but it's definitely true, not only of his physical stature but of his inner life, his kindness and the problems he encountered daily. It's not at all impossible that this story could be made into a movie (modern special effects might enable an actor to portray him in a movie, and Hollywood recently got professional wrestling "right" for the roughly first time in Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler,) but Box Brown's voice in telling the story here feels uniquely suited to it. It's balanced, nuanced between the kindness and loneliness that made André a compelling, complicated person. We get a view of André that is intimate despite being from the outside (and often admittedly speculative) sympathetic but not overly sentimental, and thus the story feels real and true, even if it emerges from decades of unverifiable memories, rumours, and legend.

The story follows a more or less classic biography structure. André is unusually large even as a 12-year-old in France, and ends up wrestling practically by default. As he rises in popularity, there's a great scene with Vince McMahon Sr., which shows how good the book is at getting into the world of pro wrestling, where he examines that as impressive as it is just to see André, there are ways to present him that better enhance that spectacle. At a few moments throughout the book, such as this, followed by the analysis of a pro-wrestling handicap match (where the Giant squares off against two opponents at once) and a boxer-versus-wrestler match with Chuck Wepner (the inspiration for Rocky Balboa) Brown shows his keenness for the subject matter, elucidating for the audience what every move in a match is meant to accomplish in telling the story for an audience. The book climaxes, more or less, with a blow-by-blow breakdown of André's famous match with Hulk Hogan at Wrestlemania III (which I've actually written about before.) It's a great use of form and medium.

André's meteoric rise, coupled with the natural shenanigans he got up to as a Giant living in a world too small for him, give the story a lightness, but it often and effectively reminds us how literally painful life was for André - not just that he was physically disabled by the condition that caused his success, but that he was emotionally distanced from everyone around him, and likely depressed as a result of being told he wouldn't live past 40 (he died at 46.) The balance of humour and pathos is kept very strong by the art, which in its clean lines and puffed-out anatomy do well to represented the over-sized world of wrestlers. On the surface, it appears simple, but it conveys the depths of its characters very well. One scene, where Bad News Brown confronts André over an overheard racial slur, could have been hard to watch unfold under a different pen. As the story goes on, much as in real life, André seems to become bigger and bigger. In general, the elastic reality of it serves as an unconscious reminder that the biography we're reading isn't meant to be a strict factual account (although a helpful endnote and bibliography section lets us know who to take issue with if the stories aren't true) but to evoke the overall spirit of the story, the characters, and the unreal world of wrestling.

It can be hard to get these things right, and to make them appealing for the non-wrestling audience. Dealing with pro wrestling, especially during its 70's heyday, is tough because the truth was heavily guarded then, and what we know now is only what has managed to stay alive in the minds of those who were there, usually speaking long after the fact. My love for pro wrestling comes from an admiration of the way the stories are conceived and told, built bigger than reality, and it's clear Brown is with me on that score. And he could not have chosen a better subject: you get a well-rounded sense of André's humanity, as when he places his hand on Robin Wright's head to warm her during a cold night shoot on The Princess Bride, or how the situation with Bad News is resolved, but also the faults he carried with him as a result of his life experience, his loneliness at the way people saw him as being alien to them, his temper and his demons. It's unflinching but rendered lovingly.

André the Giant was deservedly a legend while he was alive, and it's only fitting that that legend has grown in the years since. Box Brown has made a great contribution to not only André's legend, but to the depiction of the world of wrestling overall.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

That Old Familiar Feeling: Kiesza, "What Is Love?"

I've just started a new job after keeping the old one for five years, and as similar as it is to the old one it can't help but bear its differences. I find myself frequently saying to my new co-workers "Oh, we used to do this" or "We had things arranged that way," not to be difficult, but just to sort of take stock of what I need to get used to. Life's like that sometimes, where familiar things are arranged in a way that takes some getting used to. A dance song made into a lovely ballad, for example.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

(Fucking) With The Wrong People: Thoughts on The Walking Dead Premiere

By now we pretty much all know that The Walking Dead is not a horror show. There are often tight, suspenseful situations that keep us on the edge of our seats, but over the course of four seasons, (now starting its fifth) our heroes have developed enough best-practices to deal with the facts of zombie (sorry, walker) life. They see a horde of walkers and, if the numbers are manageable, they can confidently rush up and re-kill the living (undead?) hell out of them. It makes for some pretty bracing battle scenes, and it adds an extra environmental spice to the real terror of the show: the evil that people can do to each other, especially ones who have made it this far into the zombie apocalypse by letting their humanity slip away.

It makes for some good TV - it's always fun to see people who have gone past the point of no return go up against the protagonists we have faith in - but that doesn't really make it a horror show, either. No, one thing was made perfectly clear by the end of last season's finale, where Rick, trapped with most of his friends in an inescapable cannibal deathtrap, chillingly announced that their captors were "screwing with the wrong people" (re-dubbed to "fucking," to great effect, on the DVD/Blu-ray release)... these people are not just survivors, they're action heroes. Hell, they're basically superheroes.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Sonic Sandwich: Stuffy Old Songs About the Buttocks

So I put down my headphones for a few weeks, and when I came back, it was nothing but butts, butts, butts.

Truly, this was the Summer of Butts™. Through some kind of booty singularity, we got not only Jennifer Lopez and Iggy Azalea teaming up to literally tack their butts one on top of another, we got "Anaconda," Nicki Minaj's defiant, confident re-purposing of Sir Mix-A-Lot's "Baby Got Back," and of course Meghan Trainor's sweet, harmless, fluffy bubblegum ode to body positivity and confidence, "All About That Bass."

So naturally, it's the latter that's destroying young minds.

Somehow, of the three, Trainor seems to be the one who gets the most ink. I think when you're dealing with dance anthems, people generally expect the oversexed, crass imagery. But when you're the new kid on the block, and your speed is more in the range of a novelty - the type of song that uses standup bass and low-end horns to push its theme about being, well, a bit more than a size 2 - people start to pay attention to the lyrics.

Is it "Body-shaming Anti-Feminism?" Perhaps. (Trainor's own remarks on the subject don't help.) There's an argument there, that it just swaps one simplistic view of beauty for another, and worse, and that a woman's self-esteem has to be tied to whether men approve of her figure. I think it's going a bit too far to call it "disingenuous," though, because in the pop world, everyone's selling something about themselves. Trainor likely noticed some differences between herself and other singers, including the others listed above, and found a way to spin that for a buck or two, both from her physical appearance and her outlook on life. If the song's social politics are a bit gummed up by a need to be commercial, I don't think it totally breaks the message. Where Nicki Minaj says outwardly, "Fuck the skinny bitches," Trainor just teases them a bit:

I'm bringing booty back 
Go ahead and tell them skinny bitches that 
No I'm just playing. I know you think you're fat 
But I'm here to tell ya 
Every inch of you is perfect from the bottom to the top

She leaves off more on a "live and let live - I'm good with me, you be good with you" tone, going out of her way to write up a slogan that is supposed to be for every woman, in fact every person who doubts their beauty. It's not switching one set of exclusionism for another, or fetishizing the plus-sized lady, it's just kinda clumsy pandering. Trainor wants to peddle feel-goodness with some sly wordplay and a sarcastic attitude that gets her noticed - and boy, it got her noticed. That's a feat.

There are arguments against the song, like its primary concern being "Boys like how I look, so I feel good." That probably wouldn't be the thesis of an article about actual feminism, but as far as a here today-gone tomorrow pop song goes, that might be fair play. It's still a piece of pop culture, so it deals in those black-and-white dichotomies: models and "real women," boys and girls, attraction and... lack of attraction, I guess... false opposites that are more complicated when you graft them onto real life. It might be expecting a bit much for a mainstream pop radio artist to do that much work to break all the taboos, on her first go-round at least.

Personally, I have no material reason to be an apologist for this song. It's not better or worse than anything else out there on the radio, but it's different, which is why it keeps being talked about. I think there's a collective disappointment that it wasn't better about it, but it started this really interesting conversation, which is more than we could have said for "Friday" lo those many years ago (besides, "Boy, 'Friday' was just wrong wasn't it.") Maybe Trainor will have a long career and have further opportunities to correct this. But it's just as likely that this is it for her, and if so I don't think she has anything to be ashamed of. Pop music was meant to score our lives, not define it, so even being slightly on the ball with this one is a good step. I say let the girl enjoy having a big ole butt. God knows everyone else seems to these days.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Maybe you're better than you think: Post-MasterChef thoughts

I knew several weeks out - maybe even before the halfway point of the season - that the finale of MasterChef was going to be Courney and Elizabeth. Not only were they the most consistently-performing home cooks, they were portrayed as somehow opposites: One a breathy dancer with an air of strong (earned) confidence and the vaguest impression of a haughty femme fatale, the other a down-to-earth, detail-oriented marketing manager who nonetheless soaked up every compliment the judges gave her with her giant facial expressions and gracious attitude. They were ice and fire, and nothing short of a colossal fuckup was going to send either one of them home early.

That's not to say they were the only interesting things about the show, only that they were the obvious choices. Leslie, the Malibu-based stay-at-home dad who joined them in the top three, could easily have played spoiler. He appeared in seven pressure tests, often winning comfortably, meaning that yes, he had a habit of getting into trouble, but he proved himself a survivor. Leslie's arc was among the most fascinating of the series: he came off as an obnoxious jerk who couldn't shut up, but he backed it up, even earning the respect of some of those he clashed with, including 18-year-old Ahran, and Elizabeth herself, who chose Leslie has her partner for a challenge upon his offer to let her "boss [him] around." The two made an effective team.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Time Out: Saved by the Bell Unauthorized

Of all the many hours I've spent plunked in front of a screen, it's likely that some of the least enriching are the hours I've spent watching Saved by the Bell. Even when I was the age of the characters, a decade after the show had first aired, I already knew every hollow laugh, every squeaky-clean kiss, every low-stakes non-adventure. This was not because I was such a fanatic about the show that I memorized each episode, but because you would have to seriously lack pattern recognition not to see where each line of the script was going. It was entertainment for kids at a time when kids' intelligence was not estimated to be very high. And yet, every so often, even at the age of Twenty-Whatever-I-Am, I feel the need to pull those old plots over me like a warm blanket and watch a rerun of Saved by the Bell at 7 PM on Much, at a time when the only possible audience is people like me who want to laugh at a bunch of shitty 20-year-old jokes about zit cream and final exams, not because they're funny, but because some writer thought they might be.

Whenever I do this, there's this creeping guilt about the fact that I could be doing anything else. I could finally be getting around to watching The Wire, or even the restored version of Metropolis that's on Netflix. Instead, I yell sarcastic responses to Zack Morris' microdilemmas as if I'm so great for deigning to watch. Yes, I have a sweet tooth for terrible television of my youth, and in certain company I wear it proudly: on my dating profile, under "I Spend A Lot Of Time Thinking About..." I answered, "How the characters on Saved by the Bell might be analogous to Greek mythology." Zack being Zeus, obviously. This one sentence probably forms a more complete portrait of my personality than the rest of my profile combined, and after I added it, it was the subject of much discussion. Mission accomplished. (For the record, Screech is Hermes, Lisa is Aphrodite and Jessie is Athena, but Kelly isn't quite Hera and I don't know for sure that Slater is Hades.)

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Doctor Who 801, "Deep Breath" Write-Up: "Who frowned me this face?"

After taking an unannounced hiatus/sanity break from blogging, I'm back to rambling about stuff for the benefit of the internet. As luck would have it, this coincides with the return of new Doctor Who episodes - and by extension my write-ups for Comics! The Blog.

Series 8 of Doctor Who premieres at a time of uncertainty for the fans: there's high interest in the new lead actor, existing side-by-side with disappointment in his failure to be female and ongoing disenchantment with the programme's head writer. Meanwhile, the property has become more visible than it's been in its entire 50-year history and shows no sign of bending to the whims of its most vocal fans, much to the internet's frustration.

But the real question is, is the episode any good? Why form your own opinions when you can read mine!

Monday, July 21, 2014

Thoughts on "Weird Al" Yankovic's Mandatory Fun

Years ago, when I was just a wee baby customer service guy working at the store, I had a co-worker who told me, and anyone else who asked, that the most consistent artist of the last 20 years was "Weird Al" Yankovic. There's a certain logic to that: When he's at his best, Al is finely tuned into the pop cultural consciousness, twisting it to his own ends with a well-developed comedic sensibility. For anyone who first encountered Al in grade school, especially in the '80s or '90s, his work in the '00s and '10s has been glorious. I think that's the key: if you grow up with that sort of sense of humour, then at the very least there's still going to be something to enjoy on every Weird Album. Mandatory Fun, his latest release, and final on his recording contract, is actually loaded with a rich vein of comedic material and spot-on style parodies. Amidst the plethora of comedy songsters now working today, none pushes their work to quite the level Al does. A combination of zeitgeist and pure quality have made this album a real world-beater.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

You buy people with candy and make-up: Thoughts on Orange is the New Black


I only started watching Orange is the New Black with the release of the second season, which I think is probably for the best. I would have gone mental if I had to sit for a year with the cliffhanger at the end of Season 1, but the end of Season 2, while you could say was tonally odd, I am much happier to leave off on. It feels like a conclusion that came at the exact right moment, the result of a number of disparate story elements that were developed for a season, rather than, say, a cheap out. It didn't go out of its way to set things up for next season, either, which is an increasingly irksome tendency in television. It was happy to clear the deck somewhat and let us wonder what's next. A finale that was final.

I don't know why I didn't check it out at first. The usual reasons someone avoids something that everyone's talking about... fear of overhype, the concern that by the time you're done with it everyone else will be sick of talking about it. Many other things to check out. It wasn't that the idea didn't appeal to me, but for all it was touted as a great feminist moment - with a robust cast of diverse female characters it couldn't help but being that - I was worried the story itself might not be my jam. I was wrong about that.

Friday, June 27, 2014

The Best of Times: A Look at Duran Duran's Greatest

I don't know what my fascination with Greatest Hits albums is, exactly. It came in sometime after I started working in music retail. Prior to that I thought they were a sucker's bet: in this day and age you can cherrypick your favourite songs from the internet and arrange them any way you like, but the more I needed to nudge indecisive consumers toward checking out a band they sorta liked, the more I saw the value, to the point where I can confidently say what the best one is (Tom Petty's.) As my angry, youthful completist self ages into a grumpy pragmatist who just wants someone else to pick the best songs by a particular artist and put them in a package for him (whether on CD or on iTunes,) I'm thinking more and more about what makes a good greatest hits collection. Hence: a possible new recurring feature? Maybe? Yes?

I'm sorry I have to begin with Duran Duran here, but this post was inspired while I was handling the Greatest Hits albums of both them and Stone Temple Pilots, so I think you dodged a bullet. I think it's interesting that the album is called, suggestively, GREATEST. I am always amused by what titles and subtitles bands use for their compilations. Sometimes it's quirky (Jann Arden's Greatest Hurts) or creative (Pink Floyd's Foot in the Door) or sometimes it includes a subtitle from a lyric or song title (The Dixie Chicks, problematically, have both a proper album called Wide Open Spaces and a compilation album called Wide Open Space: The Best of Dixie Chicks.) My personal favourites are Pavement's Quarantine the Past and the Replacements' Don't You Know Who I Think I Was. GREATEST (not strictly all-caps, but certainly very bold on the cover) implies not only are you getting the best of Duran Duran, but that the band themselves are among the GREATEST of all time. That remains to be seen, buster.

Coming into it, I'm not the hugest Duran Duraniac out there. I have a certain amount of affection for "Hungry Like the Wolf" and "Rio," as memorable pop hits from the early 80s that are thrilling and energetic: products of their time, but fine products, sure. I also have a working knowledge of their other chart singles like "Girls on Film," "The Reflex," and "A View to a Kill," but my feelings are more mixed on those: "The Reflex" is pretty obnoxious anytime you hear it outside of a dance club, but it has a certain alchemy that makes it nearly a perfect white British disco cut at a time when "disco" was a dead commodity. "A View to a Kill" is kitschy, fun nonsense in the way that "Thriller" is, as befitting its status as the theme to a splashy  franchise movie - no pretension but still an outsized presence. In all this, I'm kind of the target hypothetical buyer for Duran Duran's Greatest. I'm definitely not going out to buy the deluxe editions of Rio and Seven and the Ragged Tiger, but am I interested enough in what I know about the band to plunk down my $10 for a set that includes all these and more? Luckily I don't have to, it's 2014 and the album is available to stream on Rdio, so let's check it out.

Part of what you're buying is sequence, which is poor: instead of opting for a chronological set, they're all just kind of mixed in, arbitrarily. The set dips in slowly with the comparatively minor hit "Is There Something I Should Know" (one of those "I didn't know I knew this song" songs, with the fine "Please please tell me now" hook, but doesn't do anything "Rio" doesn't do better.) After "The Reflex" and "A View to a Kill," the collection is already stopped cold by "Ordinary World" and "Save a Prayer," the former of which is an inexplicable selection from 1993, which should be buried at the end of the album. It sounds like an REO Speedwagon cut, which may have been the only thing less fashionable in 1993 than Duran Duran. After this, the big hits are all kind of jammed together in the middle, followed by a clutch of lesser-known tracks from their early years that would be served better by being laced between the songs I know. It's easier to keep track of these things if I can go "Oh, I liked that one between 'Rio' and 'Girls on Film.'" In execution, that one is "Hungry Like the Wolf," but it could have been "Planet Earth" or "Planet of the Snake," easily. They're not going to be anyone's new favourite songs, but they might become pet preferences rather than a chunk of skipworthy filler.

The album finishes off with a string of forgettable, even objectionable numbers, mostly from their later career: "Electric Barbarella" definitely sounds the way the 80s felt from 1997, and you can work out for yourself if that's a plus. "Notorious" is the diamond in the rough here as an edgier funk number (and familiar from its later use as a sample) and "I Don't Want Your Love" almost equals it, both with horns and strutting grooves. There's also the closing number, "Come Undone," which I had no idea was Duran Duran. I'm not sure it matters, and the tune is far afield in Adult Contemporary compared to everything before it, which makes it a weird moment on the disc, but a good enough song on its own, for what it is.

There's nothing deep or significant about anything Duran Duran ever recorded, unless you lost your virginity to "The Reflex" in the restroom at Club Maxx in 1986. It's fun, shallow music that makes for good listening at dances or on road trips and it's hard not to at least dig it a little in those moments when they find their groove. In that way, this band is the predecessor of Maroon 5 or Imagine Dragons, except better in the way that the junk from yesteryear is preferable to the junk from today, based on tenure and withstanding the test of time. I still listen to "Rio" every Christmas thanks to a throwaway joke in an episode of South Park 15 years ago.

Digging deeper into the Duran Duran catalog reveals, as it turns out, a bunch of songs that sound like the Duran Duran songs that I know, but not really as good. They're a band that had their moment, then couldn't figure out a way to extend it, the way other bands do. Durandemonium has not seized me, so I feel pretty comfortable passing on the opportunity to own this set. I think sequencing matters, and this one misses out by not doing anything like chronological order. I always like the feeling of watching a band from alpha to omega, especially if there's one or two singles before they hit big, to stretching their sound out on later hits and finally going creatively flat. That is the story of Duran Duran, but it's not the story as presented on Greatest. They couldn't even be bothered to front-load the heavy-hitters. It's a weird thing to nitpick in 2014, when the most likely path for this album is to go on my iPod and make appearances in shuffle mode, but there's got to be some reason to buy this album, these tracks in this order, instead of just buying the three or five I like for a buck apiece.

The other tragedies of this album are that it was released before their surprisingly good 2010 single "All You Need is Now," and that they couldn't see their way to including their cover of Grandmaster Flash's "White Lines," which is such a crazy thing that happened that it justifies itself on pure momentum.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Big Star: Third/Sister Lovers

The story so far: After two largely-unheard albums of power pop greatness as Big Star, guitarist-vocalist-songwriter Alex Chilton regrouped with drummer Jody Stephens for a series of recordings that were retroactively released under that name. (The project was also labelled "Sister Lovers" because Chilton and Stephens were dating sisters at the time.) This project takes a markedly more downbeat approach, providing closure to the legend of Big Star without really meaning to: after all, the arc of an under-appreciated genius losing all care for his work is too irresistible to ignore.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Time for a Creedence Clearwater Revival Revival

If I can offer you only one tip to make your life a little better this weekend, it will be to listen to some Creedence Clearwater Revival. The weather's getting nice, you'll probably be outside. I feel like now is absolutely the appropriate time to crank the Best of CCR. You can do so without fear of irritating the neighbors because I can assure you they will be into it. I can think of few bands that so neatly put you in a relaxed state of mind, yet don't fail to drum up your emotions and keep you rocking out. This is rock that rolls.

From the righteous outrage of "Fortunate Son" to the raw come-on of their cover of "Suzie Q,," from the down-home jangle of "Down on the Corner" to their more pastoral efforts like "Proud Mary" or the downright hymnal "Long As I Can See The Light," I think we should make every weekend in the summer a CCR weekend. This is a band with nothing but upsides, and I'm starting to think, in the shuffle of classic rock bands, we're starting to take them for granted. Luckily, they're not going anywhere. That's what classic rock is.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Zod Comes To Town: How I Would Write a Superman Movie

I realize I'm late to the party about this, but I watched Man of Steel last week, and I must say: every single negative review I read of it, including Chris Sims' absolutely scathing one and Mark Waid's heartbroken blow-by-blow, failed to prepare me for exactly how much I would hate it. I had a year of thinking "Whenever I end up seeing this movie, I'm probably going to hate it" so I went in prepared, and there have been times when I've managed to enjoy movies on that level, but this was one where I just sat there, for two and a half hours, thinking "Shit, this is worse than they let on."

And while those reviews are primarily concerned with the idea of Superman, and Man of Steel's poor way of reflecting the source material, I will say as someone who is not overly invested in Superman as a character (compared to Batman or Spider-Man) that this is a Bad Movie. I don't think it comes down to Superman killing Zod, since Superman always seems to kill Zod. The masses are fine with that. My brother, who is not a comic fan and watches these movies as a curious outsider with a better-than-average understanding of storytelling, pointed out that the moment where Supes kills Zod isn't "earned." As powerful as Zod is, the killing doesn't feel as much like Superman's hand being forced as taking the easy way out with some reluctance. But the problems started a lot sooner. It is a poorly-constructed misadventure featuring barely-sketched characters with too much power and not enough to do with it, and yeah, a lot more destruction than there ought to be. Made me yearn for the days just post-9/11 when you wouldn't think of knocking down even one building in a movie.

And as I write this, I think about how rarely I bother registering my feelings when I hate something, because who cares. Besides, it's a year-old movie that's probably vanished from everyone's mind by now. But this was just such an egregious waste of everyone's time and money, I had to take to the blog and do a thing.

Monday, May 12, 2014

[dot dot dot] TV Thoughts for May 12, 2014

Man, I'm watching more late night TV lately than it seems like I should have time for. Funny how this little patch of TV real estate seems to have so much to offer, both in entertainment and idle speculation! Here's some thoughts.
  • Larry Wilmore will make a great host of his own show, taking over from Stephen Colbert at 11:30. It seemed like a given that the slot would go to someone affiliated with the Daily Show, and Wilmore is a natural choice. The show being called "The Minority Report" brings an added dimension of representation that is otherwise lacking both in late night comedy and actual news coverage. It seems like a specific answer to the question that has grown louder with every late night appointment so far in this changing-of-the-guard: "Where are the people who aren't white guys?" Let's face it. People who look like me are not in danger of being absent form the TV screen. I'm very happy to see more Wilmore.
  • Speaking of white dudes behind desks, Colbert's a proven commodity who will hopefully make the CBS Late Show his own, albeit at the expense of one of the most powerful agents of satire in a generation. It might prove to be, oddly enough, the most classically-formatted talk show on the landscape. Time will tell exactly how "showbizzy" Colbert will go.
  • It's also hard to fault John Oliver for getting his own HBO show. While the market is flooded with comedic takes on the news, Oliver seems to have an even sharper mind for calling out bullshit than Stewart does, a bit more bombast. Being on HBO means fewer restrictions, and having no guest segment means it's a solid half-hour of straight-up material. It can get heady sometimes (he was good enough to acknowledge this when he did an extended bit on the death penalty, but it surely won't be the last time,) but it's a welcome addition to the canon, if you can take one more "funny news" program. Beats the shit out of CNN and Fox, anyway
  • I don't watch Jimmys Fallon or Kimmel, but they seem to have both carved out their niches as internet-savvy class clowns. Fallon in particular is interested in making his show a playdate that bucks the "sit next to a desk and give an interview about your latest project" tradition of Leno and Letterman, the format that has worked well for generations. That works for a lot of people, and it's not my flavour, but I get the appeal. It's honest fun. It's a place where you can tune in and see what wacky thing he's going to do with Julie Bowen or Justin Timberlake
  • I have regularly watched the beginning of Seth Meyers' show, but rarely stay to the end because I'm usually just too bushed and need to get up at a respectable hour. There are things I like about it - his banter with Fred Armisen, his anecdotes that lend a personal touch. The monologues tend to fall flat with me, because by that time I've usually sat through Stewart, Colbert, a bit of Conan and @midnight. It doesn't feel as subversively "12:30" as Conan did back in the day, but it's true to the SNL that produced him. In fact, it feels like an extension of that brand, probably more than Fallon's Late Night did. Meyers is a friendly guy who is friends with a lot popular, talented people, so his guests tend to have this angle of "Let's talk about how we know each other and things we've done together." At its best, it's quite nice and warm and he gets something out of these folks that a more straightforward format might not. I think in general we like watching late night TV interviews because these celebrities come on to let their hair down, and we like it better when it seems genuinely comfortable.
  • Speaking of SNL, what a year of ups and downs. Not as many downs as I might have thought, actually, as far as the actual show goes. They ran into the same diversity void as the overall late night landscape when they hired like five or six white dudes and one white girl. And while SNL has rarely been great for minority comedy (here's a show that didn't manage to get much memorable out of Chris Rock) there's no reason not to have made an effort to find a woman who could play Michelle Obama or Beyonce or Oprah. They corrected this midway through by finding Sasheer Zamata, who seems to be working well. In fact she's become something of a clutch player, not just a token.
    • The show is probably less individually-based than it has been in years, leading to a lot of interesting, weird sketches... the Louis C.K. episode seemed to have a large number of sketches that would have merely been the "10-to-1" sketch in other years, to make room for a Target Lady or a Gilly. It's got a strong female roster - perhaps too strong (where are you, Nasim Pedrad?) and a cast of really game newcomers - maybe we don't need them all, but it will be interesting to see which one becomes the Will Ferrell or Bill Hader. Even Taran Killem, an early favourite as breakout star, seems more comfortable as part of an ensemble. An easy comparison would be Kyle Mooney as Andy Samberg: he plays youngish roles and seems to have carved out his own version of the digital shorts (that high school president ad from the Louis C.K. episode killed me even in repeat.)
  • Lastly, @midnight has firmly become part of my end-of-evening routine. Surprisingly given its panel format, it remains consistently entertaining thanks to a dependable roster of guests. Although I've cooled somewhat on the interactive component (lately the hashtag wars topics they've selected haven't been my thing) it's a real winner.

Friday, May 9, 2014

At Least It Was Here: Thoughts on the Cancellation of Community

One of the saddest I can ever remember feeling - although I may be downplaying every other sad moment of my life for the benefit of this story - was Christmas 1998. I was 11 and it was one of those weird transitional years where I was still young enough to wake up at 5 AM absolutely psyched for Christmas, and mature enough that my gifts were starting to change in scope beyond mere toys. The big ticket item that year was a TV/VCR that was in use for more than a decade, (although after 2003 it was a sure way to get tapes chewed.)

Anyway, it was a thrilling day, but I felt one of the most crushingly, existential spells of sadness late that night, around midnight, as I lay in bed and realized... it's over. Christmas was fucking over. All the chaos and family gathering and gift-giving and pure kinetic motion of the day was done and now I was just lying around trying to go to sleep like some fucking schnook. Suddenly, it didn't matter that I had gotten gifts that I could continue to enjoy for a long time. The thrill of getting them was what I was after, and it wouldn't be back until my birthday, and even then what I really wanted was for it to be Christmas again tomorrow. I wanted that with every muscle in my body, I literally remember shaking with panic that it wasn't.

This week has seen a flurry of cancellations in TV world, in advance of the new season scheduling. A few comedies that my friends liked, like Trophy Wife, Surviving Jack, and Enlisted, didn't make the cut. (I liked what I had heard about Trophy Wife and Surviving Jack but sadly never made time for them. I saw the pilot of Enlisted and admitted it was better than most pilots.) The big one, of course, is Community.

Community. What an unlikely success story. And make no mistake, that series getting to five seasons, including its final season with the return of Dan Harmon as showrunner, was a success. I watched from the beginning and thought "Okay, this could make a good show," but it was just something to mark time until The Office was on. The first hint of its future greatness came after the midseason break, when the group dealt with a mysterious interloper named Buddy, played by Jack Black, who had always been in their Spanish class, they just never noticed him. It was the show's first tentative dip into post-modern, self-aware humour about TV formats. An episode laid over the vague framework of a buddy cop movie ("The Science of Illusion") and the gangster movie ("Contemporary American Poultry") showed how deeply the show was willing to invest in its genre studies, before the turning point, "Modern Warfare."

Suddenly it became clear that this was not just a pretty good show about the trials and tribulations of going to a comedically inept community college. This was a work of modern brilliance, a mirror to forms of entertainment we regularly consume, bound and determined to slot its characters - deep, functioning individuals disguised as archetypes - into the trappings of any and every genre that had ever existed, whether it outwardly made sense to do in a community college setting or not (and to be fair, the justifications were usually pretty solid.) At various times, the study group played out the plots of Apollo 13, a zombie film, a western, Star Wars, and somewhat implausibly, Run Lola Run and My Dinner with Andre. There were bottle episodes, clip shows, a video game adventure, conspiracy theories, one Christmas special in full claymation and one that took Glee down by using original songs.

Is it really a wonder this show didn't have the biggest audience? The fact that it was usually aired against the most popular current sitcom seems like an unnecessary extra kick.

Formula experiments don't sell a ton of sponsorships, I reckon. Self-examination and complex inner-lives are not considered ratings dynamite. You can be good, even great, and be successful in television, even if it's increasingly rare. Community was never going to be that kind of great. Community was "scare away the normals, don't let them ruin our little club" great. It was the kind of show where they did a Subway product placement in the form of a human being whose identity was subsumed by the corporation, who was forbidden from feeling love. Nice that they could be good sports about it.

I said years ago, when Community already felt precarious, that getting three full seasons of Community was a damn miracle, because it was more than we got of Arrested Development at the time. That a show could exist on Network Television, and remain determined not to budge on its vow to be a shrine to postmodernism, for three years, let alone five, is impressive. I spent all my tears on AD's cancellation back in '06, and I vowed never to feel that pointless frustration again.

There were times in season 3 I thought they took their conceits a little too far. There were parts in season 4 when I really missed Dan Harmon (though it wasn't without its moments) and there were bits of season 5 that missed Donald Glover. But it never wasn't funny, and never wavered from its determination to keep challenging the viewers willing to join it on this ride. "Challenge" feels like the right word. People don't like to be challenged, but it makes us better.

As much as I want to get furious and indignant that NBC couldn't find a way to extend the life of this show that I have enjoyed and was prepared to continue enjoying... I get it. To rail against the heavens on this one would feel as selfish and ill-deserved as crying at the sight of 12:01 AM on December 26. I got plenty, and more than I expected, and I ought to be happy. I've got it on DVD, Netflix and syndication, so I can continue to enjoy it for years to come.

I'm not simply throwing up my hands and saying "You win, only terrible shows allowed," though. Network TV is a tricky place littered with noble failures that didn't even become the cult hits Community was, but the overall TV landscape is such an amazing thing to behold. The world is still full of great cable comedies like Louie, It's Always Sunny, Archer, Broad City and others. Brooklyn Nine-Nine still exists, as do the New Girl, Parks and Recreation for the time being, and Bob's Burgers. Maybe there's not a ton else to get excited about, and looking at this list of canceled shows the network TV landscape is a little bleak. But with all that free real estate, they've got to fill it with something. Who knows, next season might bring your new favourite show.

I just wish next season started tomorrow. I hate waiting.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

[dot dot dot] Music Thoughts for May 6, 2014

Too many thoughts to tweet, too little time to review. I have neglected this aspect of my blog for far too long. Here's your musical to-do list from the first chunk of 2014.

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Boy in the Nirvana Hoodie

Among the only four pieces of band apparel that I own, my favourite and most-worn is the black Nirvana hoodie with the brownish guitar design. I'm very selective about how I represent myself, and there are a lot of bands I like whose merch I won't even touch. Part of it is aesthetic, but lot of it is who is going to notice you. If I like a band but they have a large following of assholes, I don't want to be part of that. By and large, Nirvana fandom is a great communion of music lovers. Which is shocking, because it seems to include nearly everybody. Everybody I really want to talk to about music, anyway.

The first Nirvana song I remember hearing was "I Hate Myself And Want To Die," a stray track which found its way onto the Geffen compilation The Beavis And Butt-Head Experience. It was the standout track, along with Aerosmith's ballad "Deuces Are Wild" and Butt-Head's "I Got You Babe" duet with Cher. "I Hate Myself" was a bit obvious by Nirvana standards, but far beyond the rest of the pack as far as I was concerned and made for an enthralling introduction. I was a bit too young when Nirvana happened - I don't think I heard this song until after Kurt was dead - and even my older brothers' guidance couldn't really prepare me to get into something that heavy and otherworldly. I was like 8 years old and I filed Nirvana away in the section of my brain for things that I might understand better when I was older, like sex, drugs and politics.

Over the course of a decade - between meeting like-minded people in grade 8 (my friend Nick worked "Rape Me" into a presentation about censorship) and acquiring my current job in late 2009 - I acquainted myself with this band in bits and pieces. First with the Nevermind singles, then the In Utero singles and "About a Girl" from Bleach. This was followed by selections from Unplugged, as well as the well-timed release of "You Know You're Right." I think I must have included "Come As You Are" or "Lithium" on the mix CD I made for a girl named Ana in Grade 10 because I knew it was not cool to like "Smells Like Teen Spirit" (I was wrong.) Then on my second pass, there was "Aneurysm," "Sliver," "Love Buzz," "Molly's Lips," "Dive" and... yeah.

When I became a permanent part of the staff at the store where I work, in late 2009, Sub-Pop had just released the 20th anniversary of Bleach, and Geffen, probably not wanting to wait two years before they could get their own 20th, put out Nirvana's Live at Reading set. However much I had liked this band before, I became an utter devotee. Listening to this set, seeing the breadth and scope of their music... it was maybe the first time I heard "On a Plain," "Been a Son," "Lounge Act," "School," "Spank Thru," and others if not for the first time in my life, then the first time as anything more than noise. They were revelations. That 8-year-old kid was now ready for Nirvana, and in fact was long overdue. Around that time, I also read Charles R. Cross' biography of Cobain, Heavier Than Heaven, and am excited to read his follow-up, Here We Are Now.

I think there's a reason why music geeks like me have such a high opinion of Nirvana even if you could nitpick their technical ability and variety of songs. I think their sound, which they did exceptionally well, is the closest approximation of the noise that is blaring in our heads at all times, the chaos inside that spurs us to seek music as an outlet, to work out our stresses and frustrations with loud things, crashing and bashing, screaming and wailing, raw power with just enough subtlety and mystery. Loving Nirvana is practically a precondition for being able to talk about music nowadays. There remains no easy way to explain their appeal, beyond pure instinct: you just have to recognize real.

I'm going to be 27 this year, which means it won't be long before I've outlived Kurt Cobain. That's shitty, because what have I done with all that time? But I'm fortunate, because I have spent so much of that time with music that means a lot to me, and the people that that music has brought to me. It's a bit humbling that, in the time since I started this job, I've lived out a simulation of Nirvana's entire career through those re-releases. My hope is that the music is still a living, breathing thing, and not a harmless piece of nostalgia to be trucked out of the vaults at the appropriate intervals. I think it hasn't lost that revolutionary luster. I think it is still the soundtrack to our chaotic inner lives, with all the complex interplay of beauty and violence. I may not be the type to sanctify everything Kurt ever said, but I think he stood for always wanting to do better and hold yourself to a higher standard. Hopefully just not so high you fall into a cycle of drug abuse and eventual suicide.

Friday, April 4, 2014

One last thing about How I Met Your Mother (I swear)

Leaving aside the controversial ending that will forever dominate the dialogue about the show, one thing about the end of How I Met Your Mother has me seriously bummed.

It was the only really great "multi-camera" sitcom left on television. There might never be another good one.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not some wonk who thinks multi-cam shows (often referred to derisively and usually inaccurately as "laugh tracks,") are inherently inferior to single-camera ones. How I Met Your Mother could easily have been a single-camera show in the vein of 30 Rock, Scrubs or Community (not a mockumentary like The Office, Parks & Recreation or Modern Family though, given its framing device.) It probably would have made a lot of peoples' lives simpler due to the constant playing around with the form and narrative Russian Dolls it laid out, not to mention the emotional punch it often packed.

But a lot of what made that show great was best shown in a traditional proscenium "everyone sits in the booth/on the couch" style. The give-and-take between the characters, the quips, the snarky comebacks... it was all classically sitcommy in a way that single-cam shows aren't. And it wore those tropes proudly, while also carrying itself to a higher standard of comedy, inventiveness and character depth than its lookalikes -- something a lot of people took for granted by the end of its run.

And despite the announcement of a sequel series called How I Met Your Dad (time will tell if it's more than That 80's Show all over again) I'm worried we'll never have another show that does that as well. The talent that is generally capable of pulling these things off are normally more attracted to the freedom of single-cam sitcoms. For traditional multi-cams, we're left with the Chuck Lorre pack, which I associate with cheap laffs, and Dads, which I associate with no laffs.

These shows continue to be very popular, but they aren't much fun to talk about. Besides giving a shot to HIMYD, pretty much zero multi-cam sitcoms get my attention these days (which puts me on the outside of the nearly 20 mil who enjoy Big Bang Theory on a weekly basis, and good for them.) Of course, things have been tilting this way for a long time: had it been acceptable in the 90s, Larry David is on record as saying Seinfeld would have been single-cam, which explains a lot of the more experimental stuff they did. Again, I am firmly against the idea that multi-cams are bad. It's just that anybody with much idea on how to make a show I want to watch isn't doing it with three cameras anymore.

Whether the ending left a sour taste in your mouth or not, I don't think anyone should deny that the TV landscape is poorer without this show. It proved that its entire aesthetic could still be done interestingly and engagingly. I don't think we'll ever see its equal again.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Long Story Short... a farewell to How I Met Your Mother

(Note: Obviously there's going to be spoilers.)

Nine years is a long time to be telling a story, isn't it?

In September 2005, I was 18 years old, recently out of high school and fairly used to seeing fly-by-night high concept sitcoms come and go. One Monday night we flipped to to CBS to see the debut of this new show about a guy in the future telling a long-winded story to his kids about how he met their mother. It seemed too unnecessarily complex and weird, way too ambitious, and there'd be no way to tell a story like that satisfyingly, and... hey, is that the voice of Bob Saget? Weird.

Anyway, I tuned in week after week and got to know the characters: hopeless romantic Ted, his longtime friends Marshall and Lily, their womanizing friend Barney, and the girl of Ted's dreams, Robin. Probably the definitive early episode for me was when Ted spent all night on the rooftop dressed in his Halloween costume from four years ago in hopes of meeting the same girl he did then. Then there was "The Pineapple Incident," which showed how adept the show would be at playing with the form, and "Nothing Good Ever Happens After 2 AM" which would prove the show's willingness to break all our hearts, as it did time and again.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Does it Rock? The War on Drugs

As I type this, it's late March 2014, the end of a shockingly good quarter year for music. I have been dreadfully lax in my duties as occasional music blogging guy by not writing up every single album I've bought since the year began. Selfishly, I keep telling myself I'm not done with them yet, that I need to keep spinning them and digesting them before I can truly appraise their greatness. In truth, I'm in a rut, despite and perhaps because of this great music.

Most of what I've listened to this year is by bands I have enjoyed for years and mostly written about on my old site. And there are plenty left over from previous years that I swore I would write up someday -- some of which ave released follow-ups since then (Dum Dum Girls were not an isolated incident in this.) Each of these bands is worthy of praise, but I worry about stagnation. I worry that, having spent three years establishing a group of favourites, I now have a stable of artists that I will buy, and can remain satisfied without venturing out of that perimeter.

Well, look me in the eye and tell me that I'm satisfied.

In a way, that means SOTW was a success. The point of it was to finally crawl out of my "only classic rock" phase and learn how to find new music for myself. I learned. And then I filled my world with it. I expanded my tastes so much that, if I didn't buy a new album for years, I would still be fine, I guess. Or if every album I listened to from now on was by an artist I already knew.

The flip side of this is that it's hard to be impressed by anything I don't already like. This was a problem before, of course: I deliberately opened my mind and overcame years-old hangups to start liking new things. Now, the competition is even stiffer. Anything new that wants space on my iPod has to be somehow exceptional.

So what, then, is exceptional about The War on Drugs? I'm not even sure. It's symphonic and languid - although I've already heard plenty of (great) albums so far this year that take the same tack. It's very orchestral, taking the scenic route through its compositions and rarely if ever adhering to pop structure, with songs sometimes feeling like riffs unspooled to 6 or 8 minutes. It favours slow builds and the exploration, even extension farbeyond what one might think possible, of every moment. Homey pianos twinkle underneath singing strings and some synths and shimmering guitars. This isn't something you listen to for immediate gratification, you listen to it in the background and then suddenly it takes you.

Is it fresh? Is it different? Is it familiar? is it exceptional? Is it good? I don't want to take my usual 2-3 months (optimistically) spinning it over and over to find out. But it was the third or fourth option I laid out for myself for the night, for something new, something by a band I'd never heard before, and it was the only one I not only kept listening to, but listened the whole way through. And I'd listen to it again. In this moment, tonight, I liked it, and felt it was worth the time. That counts for something.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Day My Childhood Died. Also: Ninja Turtles Trailer

Like any rude young 90s dude with attitude, I used to wear a rad baseball cap. It was a point of pride in my day to take the brim of that cap and break it in good, forming it into a unique curve to shadow your forehead. so none of those lame grownups could see your true intentions. (If you were dweeby enough to wear your cap forwards, anyway.)

My aunt's first kid was born when I was 16. By the time he was old enough to wear his own baseball caps, my aunt went to show him how to bend it and he recoiled: "No! Leave it flat! Nobody bends it!" When I heard this, I was scandalized. Leave the brim flat? Leave the sticker on? What hellish dystopia is this??

It was my first indication that I have gotten older as time has gone on, and am now part of a different generation from my younger relatives. They have different preferences for things, which are sometimes deliberately opposite from the way things were done in the past, including during "my day," so that the younger generation can put their own spin on things. The flat brim thing might not be generational per se (Urban Dictionary tells me it dates back to early 90s Oakland gangsta culture and had at least made it to my high school by '05) but it's a way things are often different from your cherished memories.

Aaaaanyway, there's a new Ninja Turtles trailer that will probably get some people saying it "killed their childhood." Guess what though: if you're old enough to remember other versions of the Ninja Turtles, your childhood is already dead because you're old, guy. Maybe you're not retirement age, but if you're in your 20s as I claim to be, you've had plenty of time with those heroes in a half shell. And they are about as durable as any franchise going, having lived as satirical underground comic icons, merch-driven cereal mascots, cumbersome if impressively-sculpted Henson puppets, time travelers, CGI characters, video game characters, and a trillion and seven different action figure variations. Here's one more incarnation.

And aside from the fact that I don't dig Megan Fox being in any movie on general principle, there's nothing in this trailer that doesn't seem like a perfectly valid contribution to the source. In fact, I actually dig the "It's just a mask!" bit.

Times change, people change, Ninja Turtles change. My years of watching the first two live-action movies over and over every weekend of the summer, when that was the only way to visit with those characters, are far behind me. Now I've got my choices when it comes to the Turtles. The kids do too.

Friday, March 14, 2014

U2 & Me

When I was younger, I had an irrational hatred for U2.

Today won't be the day I really dig into my now-complicated feelings toward this immensely-popular band and how I can feel stranger about putting my stamp of approval on them than I can Ke$ha. Life's funny that way. Mostly I've made my peace and think live-and-let-live. I don't think I have a problem with people disliking them or liking them. But when I was younger, I had a very vocal hatred for them that was undeniably irrational.

I was 13, in Grade 8, and the massive juggernaut that was All That You Can't Leave Behind had been released.  At the time, my main radio listening was time spent in the car with my dad, when he listened to Mix 99.9, which played "the best of the 80's, 90's, and Today." Which involved a lot of U2, from all decades, and especially these new songs that were re-conquering the radio after their years spent sidetracked in electro-dance-pop or whatever.

I didn't like them. Since I was young and not really given to looking into things beyond my gut reactions, it's not important why, what specifically I didn't like. That they just were a thing I decided was bad, and they were always around. Always playing. Couldn't get into the car without hearing, say, "Pride (In the Name of Love)" or "Where The Streets Have No Names" or their then-most recent single, "Beautiful Day." Something about their popularity drove me crazy, and when you're young - old enough to have opinions but too young to deal with the world - anything that contradicts your tastes is just the worst.

Then one morning, I want to say in the middle of November 2000, I woke up at 7:00 AM to the sound of "Beautiful Day," playing on the clock radio, and looked out my window, and the snow was up to here (motions to knees.) All overnight, the world had been blotted out and covered in a solid foot of white powder. I live in Canada, so I've seen my fair share of snow days, but for some reason that's the one that stuck with me. I was filled with this elation, this freedom and joy at the inclement weather and all the possibilities it brought. Like, how fitting that I'd hear this song (hardly an uncommon occurrence) to welcome me into this obviously not conventionally "beautiful" day. But the sky was blue and I was free to do whatever I wanted. It was the kind of pat juxtaposition I could wrap my little brain around.

What I did actually do that day sounds boring to tell it now, but I used it and I enjoyed it and I felt good. And this thing that I had hated, this song, this band, would be forever linked to this positive memory. Whatever I hated about that song folded so perfectly into that context, the two have been linked ever since.

The winter of 2013-14 has been ridiculous and has really put me (and many of you, I'm sure) in a mood. And after two days of springlike weather, Wednesday brought us a flash blizzard that turned the store where I work into a total ghost town. I'm sure it would have been a snow day, had the schools not already been closed for March Break. And that Wednesday, I was standing in the grocery store, and "Beautiful Day" came on the PA system - the grocery store, for whatever reason, always seems to be playing music calculated to appeal to me and me alone - and I just zoned out.

That's the gift, man. Whether I do or do not enjoy U2's music as a 26-year-old in 2014, and even whether I hated it as a 13-year-old in 2000, that song in particular is strongly, inextricably linked to a place and time in my life. Nostalgia factor isn't something that really abides by the tastes you think of yourself as having. The music you listen to today -- the stuff you choose and the stuff that is just part of your life -- will remind you of this time and place somewhere down the road when you really need it.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Sonic Sandwich: Broken Bells, Cage the Elephant, and the art of the follow-up

I really dig the Broken Bells' sound. Filtering James Mercer's indie boy tendencies through Danger Mouse's omniglot dance-funk-rap-pop-classical production resulted in an album that was unique, yet familiar. There were lumps and bumps along the way, directions pursued that didn't always pan out, but the high points of the album were some of the best music of that year. Putting "Disco" in the title track of their new album suggests, accurately, what part of their sound they are choosing to emphasize, as some of those loose threads are cut off to seek a more robustly realized synth-funk sound. The album often sounds like a mashup of The Zombies and the BeeGees.

This is a pretty creatively fertile area and they definitely aren't the first outfit to plunge into an updated version of the '70s sound. Daft Punk had a winner on their hands last year that changed the game. Arcade Fire put their spin on it by tying it to their Haitian roots and postmodern ideas, and even the Strokes dabbled on some oft-underrated albums. The Bells bring a slick product to the table, but still one with ideas, showing this is definitely a sandbox with room to play in. So it doesn't have the scope of their first album, and each moment doesn't quick stick out because of that, but it does seem to get a lot more out of its chosen direction.

Another band that has trimmed away some of the wilder impulses of their last release was Cage the Elephant. Thank you Happy Birthday, their 2011 release, was an wild affair, swinging from abrasive, screaming, howling non-songs to only slightly gritty power pop. They've brought their outsider tendencies more to the center, refining their sound for a real breakthrough. Whereas TYHB was the descendant of the Pixies/Nirvana school of alt rock, where it felt like damn near anything could crop up in the midst of the deft songwriting and playing, 2013's Melophobia is much more pop oriented. This isn't to say it's smoothed over and shined up into the oblivion of compromise: it still has some really delightful rough edges (the first track has an artificial glitch just to make sure you're paying attention.) It takes its cues from 60s garage rock, with fiery brass accents on "Black Widow" and the voyeuristic, dreamlike "Telescope." "Take It Or Leave It" has a slinky, almost bossa nova gentleness to it before hitting its chorus hard, and the Peter Gunn-like "It's Just Forever" features Alison Mosshart. Then there's the jangle pop of "Hypocrite" matched against the feedback-laden eccentricity of "Teeth," which would have easily been at home on the earlier album. Much like the Broken Bells, some of this was foreshadowed on the earlier disc - it's not so much a case of changing directions as it is staying on the straight path. For me, TYHB was an album of extreme ups and downs: The sound of this new album is more lush and warm, less intimidating even as it occasionally wigs out.

In both cases, I think there are better songs other earlier, more experimental albums, but would have a hard time denying that the later album is, top to bottom, the more enjoyable listen. Having looked around at all the possible versions they could be, both the Broken Bells and Cage the Elephant have decided which aspects they would like to carry forward, and it is to the benefit of both. Maybe there has been a change in the way bands are doing things, or what albums I'm choosing, or perhaps even how I'm listening to, but I'm finding fewer and fewer albums where I only like some of the songs, and more that carry a unified atmosphere that I want to keep in its entirety. If this is a response to the "pick your favourites" iTunes era, then I am for it. Artists are taking care to make a solid, unified work that makes their entire album worth hearing, living with, and returning to again and again.


Tuesday, March 11, 2014

My Job Is To Point

A guy comes to my cash register holding an infant to his shoulder with one hand, and the Beach Boys' Greatest Hits in the other.

"I had to get this. You were playing The Beach Boys in here a few days ago and he was dancing around in his stroller. His mom didn't believe me, so I put on a YouTube video and he starts dancing around again..."

This isn't in itself that unusual... on occasions where we ditch the pre-planned playlist of current hits, we usually see an increase in sales for whatever we've got on, even if it's something most people have heard thousands of times over their entire life. They just happen to remember, at that moment, as the CD plays through, how great all those songs were, and hey, they don't have a copy at home.

I don't sell music, really. The music sells itself. And sometimes that's because it's part of a lifestyle, the current thing, a get-it-while-its-good prospect. Sometimes it's some cool new thing nobody has heard of that you're excited to discover. And sometimes it's an evergreen gem, something that recurs over the course of time, whose appeal is so timeless even your 8-month-old feels it.

My job on this site is really just to point at things. Dress them up a bit and tell you what they're like in terms of other things you know, or feelings you might like to have about something, make sure you're aware of stuff that might be in your interests, provided your interests line up with mine. I'm not a goddamn genius but you don't have to be to appreciate music, in fact it maybe even hinders you.

"Yeah man," I said, "Kids love oldies. Something about them just clicks...

"...So, do you collect points on a membership card?"

Monday, March 10, 2014

Dum Dum Girls: Too True

After the Dum Dum Girls masterfully covered Big Star's "September Gurls" for the AV Club's cover series, I took notice and picked up their first album. I was really taken with their sound and always meant to get around to writing about them, but I am terrible enough at writing things I intend to get around to, and the album was a few years old by that point anyway. The good news is that eventually I had waited so long that the DDG's had gone and recorded a new album called Too True, with the title track boasting the elegantly delivered lyric "Too true / Too true to be good" which is not exactly an original retake on that saying, but it works damn wonders.

Simple statements delivered with panache abound on this terrific album, from the teasing opener, "Cult of Love," to the strummy ballads like "Are You OK?" and "Under These Hands" to the more kinetic numbers like "Evil Blooms" and "Little Minx." The sound of Dum Dum Girls is one of mystery and light set against darkness: a throwback to 80s girl pop that ends up as the flip side of Haim, the fuzzy, elliptical 'Til Tuesday to Haim's direct Bangles-meets-Fleetwood approach. If you like one you should like both, and if you dislike one you could probably still like the other.

My personal favourite track is "In The Wake Of You." The first time I heard it I was completely knocked out, like the girls had compressed a maximum of loving, losing and longing into 2 minutes and 40 seconds, capturing the immensity of those emotions with an unearthly ease in something that feels dashed off yet perfectly gilded. The overall sound of the album, full of soundscapes beneath the rumbling drums and majestic strummed riffs, supports deep emotions without making it look like they're working too hard. As much as there is going on in each of these songs, there is not one false move.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Wrestling Post: Yes We Can't

Although I have posted about wrestling before, and somehow feel free to tweet occasionally about it on Monday nights, I try not to write posts about current wrestling. As much as it occupies a strangely large part of my brain, it's a constantly ongoing story without much in the way of resolution, so I can never find a good point to step back and take the big picture view until years later. Especially because, as it happens, being a fan of this particular medium can be so damn frustrating.

You have to worry about things on so many levels. Nominally, it's "I hope Daniel Bryan wins this match" but in reality it's, "I hope Daniel Bryan gets pushed." It's "I hope Daniel Bryan looks good. I hope they have confidence in him." You watch the show to see how your favourite is depicted.

Monday, March 3, 2014

[dot dot dot] TV Thoughts for March 3, 2014

I was going to write a thinkpiece about the Academy Awards results, but then I realized I hadn't seen any of the nominated movies, so here's a rundown of stuff I've seen on TV lately.
  • I was going to tweet a joke about how AMC was showing a first-season episode of LOST during the Walking Dead timeslot based on a scene of Beth and Daryl playing a game of "I Never" that served more or less the same function as the same between Kate and Sawyer, but I thought better of it because the truth is TWD did right by it anyway. It's a show whose writing I feel sometimes struggles to live up to its premise, that sometimes isn't sure where the path to being its best version is, but those moments have quietly faded over the last two seasons. The smartest thing they could have done with this half-season is split these characters into isolated groups that are not always the most convenient for the characters themselves. It allows each of them to reveal sides, get new dimensions, and face different problems, and the Daryl/Beth story tonight, as unpleasant, nasty and unflinching as it got at points, felt raw, like one of the somewhat rare moments when TWD feels like excellent TV without even having a cool one-eyed badguy coming to kill everybody.
  • In what should not be regarded as surprising, I enjoy Linda Cardellini as Jess' sister on New Girl.
  • Super Fun Night is not a great show, but I was intrigued at the way it elected to show one of its characters coming to terms with her sexuality. While LGBT characters are not absent from network shows these days, most of them seem to be out and ready to go from the start of the series. Even on Degrassi.
    • Speaking of which, one of the articles I almost wrote back in the day was a mourning of the death of Adam Torres on that show, who was great as an example of a major LGBT character, who was very well-rounded and relatable, not to mention well-performed by his actor, Jordan Todosey. I felt it was a shame TV had to lose such an important character in a relatively crappy storyline (clumsy, badly-timed, right after another more meaningful death,) and the fallout from that, and perhaps also actually realizing that I'm old now and not really having time to find it, has led to me not watching it regularly for the first time in many years.
  • Dan Harmon's return to Community is an unequivocal success, perhaps underscored by the fact that they have taken a soft-touch approach to the genre tributes in favour of a sort of settled middle age that doesn't sacrifice the actual-goddamn-funny. ("Do you believe in ghosts? Do you believe what ghosts tell you about other ghosts?")
  • I watched the first episode of a show called Mixology this week and I have no idea what I think about it, so if anyone wants to have an opinion about it, I'll back you up.
  • The long-anticipated Late Night shake up took place, with Fallon stepping up to the Tonight Show, Seth Myers moving from SNL's Weekend Update to the new Late Night, with that seat now being filled by Colin Jost. If the pattern holds, he'll be hosting his own late night show in five years, while Cecily Strong has her own sitcom vehicle Thursday nights. Hackneyed jokes aside...
    • I'll admit that Jimmy Fallon isn't my thing, and since this blog isn't really about things I hate I can comfortably leave it at that but qualify it by saying I think his particular energy is exactly what a Tonight Show host would need. It's certainly a better fit than the consciously weird, self-effacing sometimes Brechtian attitude Conan brings, which I happen to prefer but doesn't "play in Peoria," as they say. I haven't seen enough of Myers' interviews yet, but he's a born monologuer and bit-doer, so he's got two thirds of the job down pat. I actually quite like his "hey, I'm just talking to you now" incredulous straight man stuff, so he'll be welcome and straightforward if not groundbreaking and subversive. And over on WU, Jost's first outing proves him to be a very dry deliveryman, which is something we've not gotten as the trend has been toward more zany and mugging, so I'm for it.
    • Guess I should clarify, by way of saying Jimmy Fallon isn't my thing, I'm really more of a Stewart-Colbert guy anyway, so even as this change happened - even as it happened last time, with Conan! - I felt like I didn't really have a dog in the fight. Then as now, I just wish everyone the best.