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.