Category Archives: Artists

The Muppets

The Muppets have always been a big inspiration to me. I grew up watching reruns of The Muppet Show, the 9 episodes of The Jim Henson Hour that aired before it was cancelled, the movies, Muppet Babies, Fraggle Rock, Sesame Street and countless other productions. Muppet Christmas Carol is one of my favorite movies ever, and a yearly staple, as is the classic “A Christmas Together” album with John Denver.

This special that was made for The Jim Henson hour but didn’t air until much later on Nickelodeon was one of the first “behind-the-scenes” videos (now a ubiquitous DVD feature) of any kind I had ever seen, and I found it endlessly fascinating. I watched it every time that I came across it on TV. I might venture to say that it has had a profound impact on where my life has taken me.

I’ve taken puppeteering and puppet-building classes, walked around the Muppet Studio in L.A., briefly met some of the current puppeteers, and last year got to make a piece of puppet magic myself.

‘The Muppets’ seems to have stolen our puppet mount-cam idea without either us or them knowing it.

But enough about me. The reason that I’m throwing this out there is that there are other people out there like me. I would venture to say that I’m at the tail end of this multi-generational fascination with these characters. The last great piece of entertainment produced with Kermit, Fozzie, etc., was Chrismas Carol in 1992, nearly 20 years ago.

The Muppets have languished in the years since then, through various changes in ownership and stewardship. There have been two mediocre theatrical movies (the last one still a lengthy 12 years ago), a failed TV variety show, a Christmas special that had its moments, another horrific Christmas special, and the terrible Wizard of Oz adaptation.

This lengthy period of brand failure is exactly what the new movie is commenting on, and it does so in such a marvelous way that all cause for concern about how it treats the franchise’s history should be thrown out the window.

Briefly, the movie’s about a two superfans (Jason Segel and Walter, a new muppet performed fantastically by Peter Linz) who travel from Smalltown, USA to L.A. with Segel’s character’s girlfriend (Amy Adams) and visit the Muppet studios, finding it decrepit and more-or-less closed. Walter finds out that an evil corporation has taken control over the studio, theatre and Muppets name and plans to run all of them into the ground. It’s up to the three of them to get everyone back together to save the Muppets legacy. To say that this bears some resemblance to the current state of affairs with the company is quite the understatement.

I watched the original Muppet Movie the night before seeing this, and I’d recommend you do the same. In addition to being able to recognize a few callback references to the original movie, rewatching “The Muppet Movie” puts things in the new film in such an interesting mindset. Kermit was once an idealistic leader, inspiring friends to uproot their lives and travel to Hollywood to become “rich and famous”. Now though, all these years later, Kermit has become sort of an out-of-touch recluse, living in a mansion with only his 1980s robot butler to keep him company. Any object that could remind him of the past, and the never-detailed, but often inferred event that caused them all to split up, is draped off. (As a side note, I would love to see this dark chapter in the Muppets history. It would be the most depressing scene ever — even more than this and the [i’m not kidding] attempted suicide scene that came immediately before it, which I can’t find now — but it would be so compelling. Side side note: this is the world where Kermit was never born.) He’s not cynical or bitter — Kermit could never be that — but he’s deeply saddened by how much he believes he let everyone down, which is a burden he’s put on himself since the first movie. Now, years after the split, he views his life’s work as a failure and sees getting everyone together as a fool’s errand, but is talked into it.

The rest of the movie parallels the original’s structure, in the “getting the band back together” sense, but it’s almost a flipped perspective. Instead of it being about the hope of becoming entertainers and being able to make people happy, it’s about the notion of losing your friends to infighting, and your legacy to years of inactivity and a company bent on ruining your name and replacing you with other people/characters. While Walter brings new energy and hopeful naivety, the rest of the Muppets seem like old souls. They’ve aged in spirit and seem a little weary. Fozzy looks a little grey. Everyone else has moved on with their lives, and it’s quite the effectively sad portion of the movie.

But the movie is greatly funny. The music is mostly fantastic, especially if you like Flight of the Conchords, whose Bret McKenzie wrote four original songs (and a reprise), and served as Music Supervisor. I didn’t really care for the Amy Adams/Miss Piggy splitscreen duet, but the Jason Segel/Walter duet, “Man or Muppet” is both catchy and hilarious. The direction (by “Conchords” TV show co-creator and director) is great, with extremely minimal CG work and many, many “How’d they do that?” moments. Segel and Adams are cute and bring great likeable human energy, even if their story feels a bit too much in the forefront.

The Muppet performers don’t seem to miss a beat at all. Considering the only original performer still involved is Gonzo originator Dave Goelz, it’s amazing that all of these characters can still “live” and “breathe” when being performed by other people. It has taken me a number of years to get used to Steve Whitmire’s slightly higher-pitched Kermit, but the range of emotion he was able to wring out of that puppet was remarkable. Eric Jacobson (Fozzy, Piggy, Animal, Sam Eagle) and Bill Barretta (Rowlf, Dr. Teeth, Bobo, Pepe, Swedish Chef) are incredible apers of the original Frank Oz and Henson voices and master puppeteers to boot. There is really no difference in the Muppet characters noticeable enough to be a distraction, as in some past productions.

The woman sitting in front of me at the screening and her hippie husband left the theatre complaining about the “Disneyfication” of the franchise. Granted, she was also complaining prior to the movie about bottled water being a scam, but she does have a valid point about the movie, to a limited extent. Yes, everything is slick, polished, and sanitized. There are overhead shots of the Muppet Theatre (Disney’s Hollywood Boulevard El Capitan Theatre repurposed for the exteriors) that show a “Cars 2” billboard prominently in the background. The three new principal roles (Segel’s “Gary”, Adams’ “Mary”, and Walter) do get a little bit too much focus.

But here is why all of those complaints are wrong. Every joke or type of joke in this movie that seemed out of place actually had a precedent set for it in some prior movie or project: breaking the fourth wall, presenting a popular song in a ridiculous way (the muppet show did this every week), the over-top bad guy bent on bringing them down (Chris Cooper, doing a great job in limited screentime), even the ridiculous method by which they travel long distances.

No matter what Frank Oz says, I don’t feel that the characters were ever disrespected, with one possible exception, which I’ll get to later. In fact, I’d say the opposite. The newer characters were either never used (Clifford, Johnny Fiama and Sal Manella were completely absent), or, like Pepe, were pushed to the background entirely. Even lesser-known, older characters like Uncle Deadly, and Wayne and Wanda make appearances.

Oz points to the ubiquitous “fart shoes” joke in the ads as something Fozzie would never do, but in the context of the movie, I think it works. The characters are out of touch and desperate to figure out what people want, and I don’t think Fozzie is below pandering for a laugh. I’d say this movie is truer to the characters than the “World Where Kermit was Never Born” business.

Gary, Mary, and Walter serve as an audience proxy for younger people unfamiliar with “The Muppet Show”. And without Segel’s Gary and Walter there is no real impetus for the characters to reconcile at all, in a not-so-subtle parallel to real-life. Walter and Gary’s storylines are also so simple that they work without being too off-putting, and they’ve found great ways to parallel other character’s stories (the two duets for example).

For me though, and this comes as a side-note, and probably just a personal gripe, but considering he’s the only original performer left, Dave Goelz didn’t have much for Gonzo to do.

I know the last movie, way back when, focused on him entirely, but in re-watching material recently, I’ve realized the hidden layer of soul and sadness that Gonzo can bring, that few others have. The emotion that comes across in this song…

… is something that Miss Piggy and Fozzy are never tasked with. Most of the other characters are just one dimensional, though Rowlf has on occasion brought the emotion in his Muppet Show performances. Because of this, Kermit is left to carry that burden, but his sadness comes from his failures to live up to his ridiculously high expectations of himself as the leader and guy who manages these ridiculous personalities. Gonzo’s pathos has always stemmed from not fitting in, being weird, and not knowing exactly what he is.

Since these characteristics are basically the entirety of Walter’s personality, and his character arc, this brooding side of Gonzo gets pushed to the backburner, and even his comical side does as well. I’d be interested to see his number of lines compared to other characters. I get that not everyone can be properly serviced, but as a member of what I consider to be the core four characters, he feels like an afterthought. You can sense the regret in Fozzie and Piggy, but Gonzo has just seemed to move on. And this overlooking of him is even sadder considering Goelz is the longest-tenured performer here.

I have some mixed feelings about the end, but I have to talk about it in vague ideas. Basically, I feel like it glosses over a majorly important plot point, but the way in which it does this seems to render it fairly unimportant in the overall scheme of things. It sort of takes their literal goal and says their figurative one is more important, which is a great idea, but leaves the main plot as almost a side story.

On the whole though, I felt every emotion I was supposed to, including my normal disinterest in Miss Piggy. I welled up a few times, laughed a lot, and left with a smile on my face, and no feelings of contempt in my heart. I never once thought that they ruined a good thing here, and that’s all I could ask for.

The crux of this movie is whether or not The Muppets are a viable entertainment in today’s pop culture landscape, and I’d say that with the right material (and this is great material… mostly fleece and foam… wocka, wocka), they can be. Let’s hope that the kids that are getting their first taste of these characters feel the same way.

****½

“Reimaginator” – Rock Sugar

What happens when Metallica and Journey get put in a blender, with a little Madonna for consistency? “Rock Sugar” happens.

You come across a lot of Mash-Ups on the internet. It seems like the cool, gimmicky musical viral video thing to do these days, and a lot of it is because the formula is so simple: take a well known song, find another seemlingly unrelated song that has a section or line in it with a similar chord progression and tempo (For instance, “Torn” by Natalie Imbruglia and “Where’s the Love” by The Black Eyed Peas would be the first to come to my mind, as they’re so similar and should render the Black Eyed Peas guilty of plagiarism) and put them together. Usually the musical hybrid is just done with samples from pre-recorded songs by the original artists, but what I found this past week completely tore apart that notion and blew me away. Rock Sugar is a completely tongue-in-cheek but wholly talented 80s Hair-Metal/Pop mash-up cover band. You heard (read?) me correctly; they’re a band that plays 80s pop songs to the tunes of some of the most famous classic rock/hair metal bands ever. And they’re amazing at it. “Sharks don’t eat metal”. Left to their own extremely questionable survival skills, Rock Sugar managed to salvage several items from the sunken yacht. In addition to their instruments, they retrieved a hot pink battery powered boom box covered with stickers of Hello Kitty, a crate of batteries, 158 cases of schnapps and numerous articles of teenage girls’ clothing, most of which the band admit to trying on and several pieces of which apparently fit and looked “pretty frickin’ awesome”. But things got worse when the horrified rockers discovered that the only music available for them to listen to was little Lisa Rosenberg’s very pop, very 13 year-old girl’s, very ‘80’s CD collection.

And so, the hardcore degenerate heavy metal members of Rock Sugar spent the last two decades stuck on an island with nothing to do but drink schnapps, catch hard to digest wildlife, befriend monkeys and dream of their long LOST groupies while listening only to, and being slowly and systematically brainwashed by, every favorite pop song of a 1980’s preteen girl. Bored, full of schnapps and wasting away on a tropical oasis, they built a stage out of driftwood, bamboo shoots and tree sap and got to work. Against the odds, Rock Sugar was alive… and they were practicing.

But does a hilariously fictional backstory make for a good album? I think your level of interest in each song comes down to the following criteria. 1) How well does the band play each song? 2) Do you know/enjoy the songs they used? 3) How surprised are you when the songs come up? and 4) How well do the songs mesh together? We can tackle these questions individually.

1.) How well does the band play each song?
The musicians themselves are brilliant. Essentially, they’re a cover band with mostly great arrangements (see question 4), but they slip in and out of subgenres and vocal styles, flawlessly mimic and reinvent these classics, and can flat out play. Lead singer Jess Harnell (who, in the most bizarre part, is the voice actor behind Wakko Warner of the “Animaniacs”, and uses his chameleonic voice talent to mimic the vocal styles of a multitude of lead singers) is simply amazing. The band breaks out the “Journey” songs twice, and he manages to hold his own against (if not outdo) Steve Perry, one of the five greatest lead singers of all time.

In fact, the album’s second last track, “Round and Separated” (a mix of “Round and Round” by Ratt and “Separate Ways” by Journey) is an epic joy, almost entirely because of how talented the band is. The energy and technical proficiency here are high enough to elevate these two decent but not exceptional songs into something better than the sum of the two parts, into a cohesive whole that just might be better than either song ever was. Production level is solid. Every instrument can be heard cleanly, and the background vocal work is fantastic throughout.

2.) Do you know/enjoy the songs they used?
A large portion of enjoyment comes from whether you know these songs, but this knowledge isn’t completely necessary. “Voices in the Jungle” is a prime example. I’ve never heard “Voices Carry” and am only slightly familiar with “Welcome to the Jungle“. The song works though, because the source material is strong and appeals to me. Conversely, “We Will Kickstart Your Rhapsody” didn’t work for me, solely because I don’t think “Kickstart My Heart” is that great of a song. Other people I know have different opinions though. I just dont particularly like that style, I guess. But they can play it well, and sing the Bohemian Rhapsody harmonies. For the most part though, I enjoyed all the other songs. If you only know the pop (or relatively pop-py) songs, it works as an album of hard rock covers. You may miss the other musical references, but you won’t have any idea what you’re missing. Hard rock purists should find these songs funny at first, and then come to the realization that they aren’t bad, it was just the way that they were Hit Me Baby One More Time“) On the whole, the songs are extremely enjoyable and catchy, whether you knew them previously or not.

3. How surprised were you when the songs came up?
I suppose if you checked the track list before listening to each song, you’d be able to guess at least one of the songs used in each track, but I think a great amount of the album’s enjoyment comes from being thrown completely out of your element. You’re going along, listening to the opening chords of a song you’ve heard a thousand times, played nearly exactly how you’ve heard it all those times, and all of a sudden, something completely unexpected, but highly recognizable pops up. You can’t believe your ears! Why haven’t you ever thought of that?! These guys are geniuses, you think. These songs were made to be played together! Part of this goes to question four, though. If the songs don’t go well together, then this surprise aspect is just a gimmick, and a failed one. But when you’re surprised and shocked, I think this is the biggest impetus to share this band with your friends; to see the looks on their faces when “Don’t Stop Believing” comes in, instead of the “Enter Sandman” verse. The best example of this is the epic finale “Mashterpiece”, “Dreaming of a Whole Lotta Breakfast”. Again, you can probably guess what goes into it, judging by the title, but there are a lot of surprises in it, and they all fit perfectly. Whereas “Round and Separated” mostly works because of the band’s talent and charisma, this songs works because of the amazing arrangement and the element of surprise. Have a listen.

4. How well do the songs mesh together?
This is the most hit-or-miss question. “I Love Sugar on Me” works because very little had to be changed in each song for them to fit against each other. But when the first verse of “Workin’ for the Weekend” kicks in in “Prayin for a Sweet Weekend”, it sounds awkward. The playing of the “Sweet Child of Mine” riff under the “Weekend” chorus works well though. “Heaven and Heaven” works great, even if it’s more of a medley than a mash-up. “Here Comes the Fool You Wanted” is great, even if the “Nobody’s Fool” contribution is only a line from the chorus sung over and over (on top of two other vocal parts) at the end. I feel like the chords on the verses of “Shook Me Like a Prayer” aren’t the same as “Shook Me All Night Long”, but instead, just power chords, played AC/DC-style, that would normally fit under the Madonna verse. The same can be said about “Straight to Rock City”. Not to say that these tracks aren’t great, they just needed some re-arranging to “fit together”. The chorus part on “Straight to Rock City” while a brilliant melding of “Straight Up”, and “Detroit Rock City”, is a little strange, but it’s something I can’t put my finger on. Maybe something with accented syllables versus up/downbeats, but I have no idea. So in all, there are a bunch of songs where they took parts that work well, (a chorus section or something, where the two parts fit together) and built the rest of the song with the music from one element, and the style of another. This seems to be more of a style mash-up than a direct musical mash-up. Again, not that any of this is bad, but if you’re looking for straight mash-up goodness, some of these songs might not be what you’re looking for.

****½

Most of these songs are epically awesome. A few of them though either don’t work (“Prayin for A Sweet Weekend”), feel like filler (“Breakin’ The Love”), or just didn’t appeal to me (“We Will Kickstart Your Rhapsody”). Everything else is fantastic though. The musicianship is great, the songs are entertaining, and come with an already built-in knowledge that doesn’t require people to listen to them over and over to learn the words and music. “Here Comes the Fool You Wanted” and “Dreaming of a Whole Lotta Breakfeast” are triumphs of arranging, and the sheer power of “Heaven and Heaven” and especially, ESPECIALLY “Round and Separated”, elevate this to an album that I will keep in my music circulation for a long time. I can only imagine how great they’d be in concert. Also, props go to the pristine production quality of the album itself. Everything is audible and clean. And the concept itself is completely brilliant. They take the idea of being a cover band and elevate it to something wholly different, adding a level of creativity, and injecting new life into songs that have been stale from overplay on classic rock stations for a long time. Truly this is a rock-tastic piece of confection.

Leaking a Fake Version of Your New Album on the Internet (with actual fake songs)

Yet another Ben Folds-related review. I’m probably not going to write anything about his new album that’s coming out this fall, and since this is much more interesting, I’d rather substitute it anyway.

I found this article on RollingStone.com that discusses how this fake album came about, with bits about each song. Basically, he and his bassist and drummer got some studio time in Dublin and wrote six fake tracks, added three songs that are going to be on the album, and gave it to some guys to leak.

Obviously the songs aren’t all going to be great, but for a free download that’s basically been sanctioned it’s not a half bad idea. There’s the free media attention that you get from the music magazine, and the rest of the internet music community (google search for “fake album leaks” and you’ll almost exclusively get pages about this specific one), which is always good for someone who could possibly be deemed irrelevant and past his prime.

It gets his fan base excited and talking, though that could be a good thing or a bad thing. Not coming out immediately and saying that it’s fake leads to discussion about the new sound (judging from the Rolling Stone samples, he’s got yet another new sound he’s going for. Kudos for changing it up, but like the last time, it’s going to take some getting used to). The risk here is that while it does drum up interest in the new album, the fanbase is most unanimously going to be buying the new album anyway, and by putting out sub-par songs you can only hurt your chances that some of these people will be willing to pay for the album when they can just download it (of course, thereby missing the meaning of releasing a fake pirated version in the first place).

This isn’t to say that this fake album is all that bad, it’s just a little bit below full-album standards. It’s about on-par with the EPs that he put out between “Rockin the Suburbs” and “Songs for Silverman”. A few of these songs (Brainwascht, Dr. Yang) actually sound like they could be on that first Ben Folds Five album from way back when, which is probably the first time in ages that you could say something like that (whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing depends on the person I think).


“Bitch Went Nuts” will probably be a concert staple in the future.


“Cologne” is great, though it’s going to be on the album in a modified version.


“Way to Normal” is just strange, not that the bulk of it isn’t a perfectly normal song, but it’s three distinctly different sections. I especially love the “Flash Gordon”-inspired opening. The other ones besides “Hiroshima” are pretty much forgettable, but it was free so I’m not complaining.

Putting (at least similar versions of) three of the actual songs that are going to be on the album is a smart move as well, tempering the cries of “I downloaded this for nothing”, and serving as an actual preview of what’s coming. It’s basically the same as releasing a free three-song single…. with six bonus tracks.

****
Releasing a fake version of your album on the internet (with actual fake songs) gets four stars, as it can get you free media attention, the fan base, and maybe even some others, talking about the upcoming album, and serve as a preview of what the album is actually going to be like. The only negative is that since he didn’t come out right away and say it was fake, there may have been some negative early reviews. Providing full-disclosure, which he eventually did, mitigates this a bit though. In the end, I think that no matter how mediocre, fans appreciate what is basically a free EP.

ben folds show in Easton, PA, april 10th, 2008

Audio isn’t great, but it’s the best version of Free Coffee I could find. There’s an aluminum cake pan in the piano as well as a distortion pedal. He didn’t mess it up last night, like in the clip, thankfully.

Quick (hopefully) post about last night’s ben folds concert at lafayette college in easton, PA. I’ve been to six Ben Folds concerts now (since 2001 and most of them were relatively close to where i was at the time, but yes, it’s still a lot), and I’d probably rank this as the second best of them all, with last year’s Muhlenberg show taking the top spot. Reasoning for this is that the drumer and bassist add so much more to the sound, both instrumentally and vocally, and both of these past two shows didn’t require me to sit through rufus wainwright sucking the energy out of the crowd.

Granted, we had to sit through an equally ill-picked opening act (the same as muhlenberg), a solo guitar player/”singer” whose songs consisted of mostly playing the same chord over and over again arhythmically, droning on and on about there being “evil in the world” until the words had no meaning, all while basically looking like Sam Rockwell doing his best Crispin Glover impression. He also seemed to be drunk?

Mr. Folds (as the New York Times would say), put on his normal, energetic show for about an hour and forty five minutes, adding new bits to established songs, and going back to the beginning of the catalogue, including seven Ben Folds Five songs, and playing four new songs. Apparently, they just finished recording the new album; didn’t say anything about release dates. Overall, just a fast-paced, awesome show. Also of note, t-shirts being sold read “I [Heart]ed Ben Folds… before he sucked”.

Setlist (I felt like a nerd writing the song titles down, and I probably was right in feeling that way) below.

New Song- Didn’t hear the title or any of the words really. Possibly “Brainwashed”
Gone
Hiroshima- New song about falling off a stage in Japan and doing the show with a concussion.
Bastard- That vocal part in the middle (adjusted from the album to suit three people, still sounding like more) is ridiculous
Still Fighting It
Free Coffee- New song. Played with a cake pan inside the piano, and a distortion pedal on some of the keys. Really interesting sound.
You to Thank- Went to the 70s sounding keyboard to the side of the piano for part of the solo, and was actually playing tough parts on both at the same time, angled ninety degrees apart, for a bit.
Landed- Cameo by some tambourine player got major cheerage.
Annie Waits
B*tches aint Sh*t
Lullabye (rest of the band stepped down for this and luckiest)
Luckiest
Narcolepsy- Maybe the best version of this I’ve heard. Especially effective after the quiet sap-fest “Luckiest” (not that it’s bad, it’s just quiet and sappy). Narcolepsy was long, loud, and with a good bit of jamming in the middle.
Army- Didn’t teach the audience the horn parts, but just kinda pointed, expecting them.
Kate
Rockin’ The Suburbs- Claimed it was originally going to be about Bob Seger beating someone up with tire chains for robbing an old lady.
Underground
Zak and Sara
One Angry Dwarf- These last two are the normal, fast paced closers, amping up the energy until he throws the stool at the piano.

Encore
Effington- New Song. Nice three-part a cappella opening. Something about “If there’s a god, he’s laughing at us and our football team”. Kinda sounded like a school fight song. Tambourine player reappeared to applause.
Philosophy- with the normal stuff added at the end.
Not the Same- w/ audience vocals.

****½
Four and a half stars. Minus half for the draining opening act, the smallest crowd, and possibly least interested (though that’s not to say they didn’t bring the applause, maybe just didn’t feel like singing) I’ve seen for a show, and opening his set with a new song that nobody knew.

Pitchfork Media’s Review of “Shine On” and “Get Born” by Jet

My review of “Step One” by Steps. Wow, that was easy. I didn’t even have to sit through the CD!

When you read a review, you expect certain things. You want to hear some insightful positives and negatives regarding the thing being reviewed. You don’t want to be talked down to. You hope to have an overall idea of whether said object is worth seeing/listening to/buying/reading/visiting/eating/doing/throwing things at. And after you’ve done any of those things, you want to come back and read that review again to determine whether you agree or think the reviewer is out of his mind. Basically, you expect reviews like this and this. Then you go to a website whose supposed specialty is reviews, and you see something like this. This “review” only manages to fit one of those criteria, that being the last one” that this reviewer is totally out of his mind.

A long time ago, when the second Franklin movie was being planned, our discussion took a long detour, with us arguing over the definition of the phrase “cop out”. There were numerous e-mails sent back and forth trying to determine if an idea that I came up with was something that constituted this. You can read highlights here. This argument was never really solved, but I stand here today telling you once and for all, that this “review” is the definition of “cop out”.

I can gather by the video clip shown here that the “reviewer” doesn’t like Shine On, but I was interested in hearing some actual insight into what makes it good or bad. Granted, the CD wasn’t that great (there were three songs on it that I thought were really good, but the rest was kinda mediocre), but it doesn’t deserve to have its review have nothing interesting or meaningful to say at all. I don’t know how a high-fallutin’ website like pitchforkmedia decided that that was representative of their organization, but recently, they even put up a similar video, claiming it was a JET music video. Obviously, the pretentious music-lovers have a thing against the Aussies rockers, but I really can’t figure out what it is.

The review of their first album, Get Born, gives us a little more understanding, but I use the word “little” literally. It’s presented in the form of a discussion between the band and the owner of a venue where they’re supposed to be putting on a concert. Things go wrong at the concert and the fans turn on the band. Sure there are opinions presented about the band, but I’m sure they’re all completely over-the-top exaggerations from someone who’s never seen them live or met them. I can’t imagine a band (aside from the Flaming Lips or Ozzy Osbourne) actually demanding [thirty f%$&in’ angry alligators with top hats on, Iggy Pop shooting out of that cannon, and midway through sending in the kid from the iPod commercial.] It may work as a review of the band, but as a review of the album it fails miserably.

It only mentions three songs from the CD (very briefly) and it only has two points that I gleaned from the whole thing. The first is that all their songs sound like other bands (citing AC/DC, Iggy Pop, Wallflowers, Oasis, Bon Jovi and the Rolling Stones). The second is that they have “insipid love songs that sound like wedding band covers” and “insipid lyrics, we say ‘Come On!’ and ‘Oh Yeah!’ every five seconds”. So basically the guy only knows one insulting adjective. You know, there’s a thesaurus feature in MS word, and I’d assume there’s also one on the trendy Mac you also probably use. Insipid: dull, bland, wishy-washy, characterless, colorless, trite, tame, unexciting, uninteresting, boring. Maybe none of those words sounded smart/insulting to readers enough, though I’m partial to the word “trite

Here’s the thing that the review is missing. The music is fun. It’s not meant to be high art. It’s not meant to be genre-pushing. It’s meant to be music with easy-to-learn lyrics and melodies that you can put in your car CD player, turn the volume way up on, roll down your windows and shout at the top of your lungs and have a good time. And it completely succeeds at that, something that this reviewer was competent enough to pick up on. There’s a good mix of fast and slow songs (so the whole CD doesn’t sound the same, a huge pet peeve of mine), and I like most of the slower songs. I understand that a lot of the faster songs sound similar, but they’re catchy enough that it doesn’t bother me (a problem that the second CD had), much like with critically lauded Franz Ferdinand. As far as the words go, I’m not expecting poetic lyrics, so why should I complain that they’re not there? Did people who went to see Pirates of the Caribbean complain that there wasn’t a deeper meaning in the dialogue, or that it wasn’t a British period piece about some queen from the 17th century? I would hope not. They should be expecting to have fun. That’s all I expect out of it. That’s not to say that I shouldn’t hold the band accountable for bad music, I just don’t think that criticizing lyrics for this kind of music is really the way to go. Do critics complain about the lyrics to “SHOUT” or “MONY MONY”? Some of the songs on that Fountains of Wayne CD, Welcome Interstate Managers had TERRIBLE lyrics, but critics dismissed them because of how fun the melodies were.

Now some of you who are familiar with Aaron Copland’s book, “What to Listen for in Music“, would say that I’m only listening to this album on a “sensuous”, or maybe an “expressive” level, and that to fully understand why music is good or bad, I have to be listening to it on a “sheerly musical” level as well, combining the three. Well, in response to that I would claim that there isn’t too much to it on a musical level, but my musical knowledge is limited. I’m learning to increase what I hear when I listen, but I want to understand what makes this a musically good or bad album. That’s why I went to a site where I knew I would find a harsh but intelligent criticism of the CD. But there was none of that there. Instead, all I got was a poorly-written, profanity-laced diatribe against the band for mimicking other bands. Personally, since there really isn’t any truly popular band playing right now that sounds like them, I don’t have too much of a problem with it, but I’m reviewing the review, and not the band or CD, so that doesn’t really matter.


Zero stars for the cop-out Shine On so-called review.

½
½ star for the creativity to write a review for Get Born as a dialogue. Minus four and a half for not having any substance to it at all, not talking about the songs, and basically complaining because Jet has songs that sound like bands that lots of people like.

That new U2/Green Day Song

I guess I just don’t understand the point. U2 needed a single for their approximately fifth greatest hits collection. Rather than come up with a really good song themselves, they enlisted the help of a band that while good, just doesn’t seem like the right fit with U2: Green Day. Not that Green Day can’t play, but the two bands’ styles are just a little too different to mesh collectively, not unlike that time where about 16 different musicians got up onstage at the Grammys and butchered Lennon/McCartney’s “Across the Universe”. Paul’s probably rolling in his grave. “route involving thoughtful lyrics about the condition of the area, or people’s struggles, they decided that the second half of the song should consist of the phrase “The Saints are Coming”, repteated over and over and over again, in a musical phrase that has definitely been taken from somewhere that I can’t quite place. They chose to debut this song at the reopening of the Superdome, for the Saints-Falcons Monday night game a few weeks ago, and it works perfectly as an opening theme song for the football team during games. I can’t imagine, however, that this song is going to be remembered at all in even one year’s time, and that’s a shame considering that this is all that two of the most prolific bands of the last 15 years could come up with. It’s almost like they weren’t trying.

They could very well have been trying something new though. This could be the start of product placement within the music industry. Well, I guess that’s not new” but maybe actually using the songs on the radio to promote something. It would be like the Eagles writing a song about how great the Philadelphia Eagles are, to get them pumped up, or AC DC writing a song for the Chargers (HA!), or Bad Company writing a song called “Bad Company” and using it at Enron meetings (BA-ZING).

And isn’t Bono’s thing Africa , anyway? Why didn’t they use the power of song to put together a group to raise funds for Africa “. Oh waitI forgot” Well, why didn’t they do it again? A world-renowned, self-appointed ambassador to a far-off and underprivileged continent can’t be taking time away from that to help another cause, especially one that’s been nigh on forgotten by most of the world ( You know you’re lost in your own logic when you can’t tell if you’re being sarcastic or not). I mean, you don’t see Brangelina Polie out there helping America ‘s homeless people, or fighting drug abuse, or all the millions of issues people here face every day. And that’s because they have character. They know that if they multi-task, not only do run the risk of reducing the importance of their cause, but they also reduce the importance of other, more useless celebrities. By doing double duty (I said Doody!… I guess that doesn’t work as well when typed out) when it comes to activism, you’re the one putting Rob Scheider out of a job. It’s on your head Bono.

What was I talking about? Oh, this dumb song. Like I said, it may be good for the football team, but call me cold; I don’t really care about the Saints. It was nice to see them play well, but not nice enough for me to listen to an awful song that could’ve been better.

*

One star for trying to bring some attention back to New Orleans , and making a song that they’ll be playing forever at Saints games. Minus four stars for making the rest of us listen to it, and possibly starting a trend of individually-made rock songs for a specific sports team. The last thing we need is a re-made version of “Benny and the Jets” about New York’s lesser football squad. We already have to deal with that annoying J-E-T-S cheer. That should be enough.

The Unfair Critical Treatment of Former Boy Band Members

Let’s see if I can get out some reviews for once…

I’m not being profound when I say that success is a great way to turn the less successful against you. In the burgeoning field of critical criticism, this fact is no more obvious than with music critics. Movie critics are relatively high profile (notably Roger Ebert), and there is a variety of widely known names in the field (Gene Shallit, Peter Travers, Leonard Maltin, etc.) and almost never write “I could make a better movie than this, I’m just choosing not to” types of reviews. If anything, for a really awful movie, they’ll just say, “Anyone can’t write (successful) music, but think that they can. This isn’t where every music critic comes from, but it’s a heckuva lot easier to say, “I’m going to tour the country, and sell my CDs to all the free-thinking Zydeco-Blues-Jamband-Trip Hop-New Wave-fans out there” and think you really have a chance than saying “I’m going to be a movie star,” and actually believing your own hype.

But the weird thing is that with music (well, like movies, too), one doesn’t necessarily need to be particularly talented to get really far with a career in it, for some amount of time, at least. Obviously, the poppy-est of pop music is the ultimate example of this. We’re sort of in a dry spell for “bubblegum” pop at the moment, but it’ll come back…it always does. Nsync sold (capital “M”) Millions of records, made lots of money, achieved a huge amount of fame, and those people with musical dreams in the previous paragraph? Not so much. See the part above about success and the unsuccessful.

band
In Soviet Russia, band boys you!

See, I have nothing against NSync (or any of those groups). First (and what should be the most obvious), I’m not and I never was their target market. It’s not my money spent on their CDs, merchandise, etc. If I’m that offended by their existence, I can change the channel, the radio station, whatever implement of the mass media on which I’d see them. And second, in interviews, they seemed like perfectly friendly guys who had a lot of fun and realized they were really a product of the current time, and they’d be “done” when they needed to be “done.” (to be fair to the “haters,” the Backstreet Boys didn’t seem to have quite as much perspective/insight into their fleetingness). Second-and-a-half-ly, there’s something to be said for making somewhat listenable music that gets played on Top 40 radio: I can’t stand most of their catalog, but “Bye, bye, bye” is a darn good song, you’re just afraid to admit it.

And third (where the music critic thing comes in), no matter how “unmusical” they might’ve been, it really doesn’t matter. Someone would laugh out loud if anyone in Nsync said he was “living his dream of being a musician,” but if he said, “I’m living my dream of being famous,” well, you really can’t argue with that. Toward the end of their popularity, you could tell that their “handlers” thought they could gain more fans if they were involved (in some nebulous capacity) in the writing of their music (as opposed just the performance of it), but the writing was already on the wall for their genre of “pop” as “real” signer-songwriters like Avril Leveigne took the torch and were equally not the type of music someone like me would in the market for.

But did these boy band members have any talent? Easy answer: of course not, they sold millions of records because of the people pulling their strings. Not-so-easy answer: they sold millions of more than one record, and no matter how smart the people behind the scenes were, there were five guys that needed to keep a rather limited “schtick” interesting.

Justin Timberlake, undoubtedly the most musically successful of the former members, gets the worst rap. He was probably the most popular among the ladies during his days with Nsync and let’s not forget his white-boy-fro: plenty of reasons to hate the guy. Basically, he managed to turn a boy band career into a “leading man in music” type of trajectory with one CD, and his upcoming CD will cement his role even further. Of course, he won’t be able to shake the “boy band” thing, but there’s something to be said for people always being interested in your next CD, if only so they can complain about it loudly, inadvertently helping to promote it.

Which brings us to the actual center of this review, a seemingly innocuous review of one of the new singles on Justin Timberlake’s new CD. Once again, let me call out pitchfork media. Now, I’ve not heard the song in question, but the review of “My Love” is the issue. But wait, you say, “Dan, but the review got five out of five stars, and pitchfork media doesn’t like anything.” I say, “Look more closely.” Sure, it got five big stars, but look to see why. It certainly doesn’t have much to do with Justin Timberlake according to the writer. Timbaland produced the song, which as we know, in hip-hop means he did either a whole lot or a whole little. It would appear that Timbaland, for this song, did “a whole lot.” In fact, according to the review, it’d look like he did the whole darn thing. As if there’s no way that someone who was, *gasp* in a boy band (much less one of the most successful ever) could accomplish anything after that on his own merits after this. Stereotyping and generalizing all people bitter at boy bands’ success to be like pitchfork media, it’s weird that they’d be so invested in seeing him fail, and if no one heeds their (the holier-than-thou’s) warnings, then they need to explain away how the guy got successful (Timbaland supposedly writing the perfect song, etc. without any help from a former boy bander). I’m still not the target market for Justin Timberlake’s music, but that doesn’t mean he deserves to fail.

**

The Unfair Critical Treatment of Former Boy Band Members gets two stars due to the fact that it seems like some people just can’t get past the fact that someone who became successful doing something unfathomable to them (doing a good job lipsynching while dancing, mainly) could go on to something larger and somehow respectable outside of the realm of middle-school girls. Like I said, a lack of success breeds a bitterness towards the successful. The two stars come from the fact that there is plenty of insignificant music churned out by former boy band members that even I (who’s half taking the role of Devil’s Advocate in this) couldn’t defend.

Rockstar: Season 2

This one may balloon to huge proportions again like the season 2 LOST review. That being said, I’m officially starting it on Friday August 18th… we’ll see how long it takes to finish.


One of the contestants on the show is named “Storm Large”. The one night after she performed, Tommy Lee said “I’d like to see more of you”, and she suggested an internet search. I did and this is what I got.

I’m not so much the fan of “reality TV”. Call me a TV snob, but I find the amount of manipulation in the genre to be completely too much. Manipulation of people to do certain things. Manipulation of actual events to make things look a certain way. Manipulation of audience emotions to make us feel empathetic or hateful. Certain people who are even more cynical than I am about such things might say that all of these manipulations are used in any sort of narrative/fiction work, and so therefore I shouldn’t be complaining, because nearly all of my favorite shows are fictional. The difference here is the illusion of reality that exists in the non-fiction genre. Shows like Laguna Beach, Survivor, Big Brother, and yes, even “The Real World”, all have producers influencing actions of characters, the editing of actions to portray people in a certain light, and of course the casting of people to fill certain roles on the show… because without an antagonist, there’s no drama, and without drama, there’s no point. And they manage it by making us believe that these are people without outside influence… as they really are.

Of course in competition reality shows, usually that antagonist comes in the form of a person who isn’t performing upto the standards set by the other competitors, but miraculously does not get voted off, with a much more solid competitor taking that bottom spot. Then there’s always a big “shock” when a popular contestant gets kicked off (once a year without fail), and somehow the one we all seem to hate stays on for another week, until finally they get shelved and we all rejoice.

Where am I going with this? I’m still gonna need another paragraph to get there. You see, I always hated American Idol. HATED it. Even when I was forced to live with it at work every single day of the week. That might’ve actually made me hate it more. The next January though, I was among a high concentration of people who wanted to watch the audition episodes. I knew where it was going to go. A slew of bad singers hoping to be the next William Hung were going to come on and be completely oblivious to their lack of talent and then be exploited to sell advertising space. AHH America! What I never realized though, was that these horrible singers were actually selling the remainder of the season. Sprinkled in with the talentless souls are a handful of people who are either gorgeous and good singers, or they’re unattractive but have overcome obstacles in order to be able to sing the way they do. And while you think they’re just telling you more about the person, they’re filling your head with sympathy or lust. And that’s where they hook you. The personalities. American Idol is a personality contest as much, if not more than it is a singing contest, with terribly bland arrangements, stiff contestants who are oftentimes “pitchy”, and don’t really know how to entertain a crowd for the most part. And product placement. Lots of product placement. Of course I fell into the trap, but I thought I was being anti-Idol by rooting for the completely awesome Bo Bice (still the best contestant they’ve ever had on the show). “The Man” still won though, because by being the provider of such “anti-Idol” material, they got me to watch it. CURSE THEM!

I realized that American Idol was like that terrible contestant who nobody seemed to dislike enough to get kicked off. It’s flashy, attractive and diverse/bland enough for EVERYBODY to like something about it. The problem is that it’s not good. But last year after Idol’s season ended I found a show on CBS that did everything that Idol did, nearly five times better, but nobody really knew about.

Rockstar: INXS was a talent competition to find a new lead singer for the band INXS, probably unknown to most people my age. The show had incredible production design, better camerawork, better direction, better judges, a much much better results show, a phenominal house band, better arrangements week after week, and at least six singers that probably could’ve won Idol. In fact, the top six contestants were so uniquely awesome that any one of them could’ve had a successful solo career had people actually watched the show. There was half-hour backstage episode every week that took a look at the personal interactions of the contestants, challenges and sort of rockstar-seminar things, and song selection/arrangement, which was a very interesting supplement, but got moved to VH1 because of bad ratings. Also, the show had Brooke Burke wearing conveniently revealing outfits. And it was all on during the summer, when nothing else is on. What more could you ask for?

Season 2 definitely has a different feel, and for good reason. The contestants are auditioning for a different band, a new band without any released material, and without a former lead singer. Called Supernova consists of Tommy Lee, former Metallica bassist Jason Newsted, and former Guns N’ Roses guitarist Gilby Clarke, who, like INXS in season one, serve as judge and executioner. I’m going to break this all down in good and bad as compared to last season.

First the good.
1. The judges are better than last year. Call me ignorant, but I never knew who INXS was, and I could never tell the band members apart when they were giving their comments to the singers. Not only does Supernova have members that stand out on their own, but are telegenic, and give really good advice much of the time. Of course Tommy Lee is gonna flirt with all the women, and there’s gonna be all sorts of innuendo, but there’s also genuinely constructive criticism.

2. The shows use of alternative media is staggering. They took the backstage show off the air, and put it where people who really would make the effort to watch it have the ability to watch it… the internet. The show’s website has a plethora of activites and information, including “mix-tape” tracklist of contestants, band members, and the houseband’s favorite songs, which you can then buy from MSN.com’s service. You also can vote for your favorite performer online, as well as by phone. During this week, viewers were actually able to vote which songs contestants would sing, from a list of four per singer.

3. No INXS songs. Even though it served all of its purposes in season 1, I couldn’t help but be a bit bored by performances of these songs, mostly because I didn’t know them. I understand that this was partially done so I could get to know them, and that people who once liked INXS would probably like them, but I didn’t. Because Supernova doesn’t have any previously recorded songs, the people in the bottom three pick which songs they’re going to sing for survival. I’m not exactly sure at what point they pick their songs or rehearse with the house band, but it always comes off great.

4. Zayra Alverez. This woman could easily go under the “Bad” column, but I’m gonna count her as “so bad it’s good”. She’s not bad in a William Hung way though. Zayra is what Bjork would be if she were a Latin music performer. She obviously never stood a chance of becoming the lead singer for this band, yet she somehow managed to escape elimination twice… I think because the band thought she’d make good TV, and they knew they’d kick her off eventually. Watch for yourself here. The best ones are Razorblade, and 8675-309. Trust me when I tell you that you have never seen anything on TV like it. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing is up in the air, but at the very least, it’s incredibly compelling TV.

5. The job to be won is a much more difficult one. Becoming the new lead singer for INXS is tough, no doubt. But you’ve already been given a blueprint and a catalogue of songs to work with. Here, not only will you be creating your own original sound and direction for the band, but the winner is also going to have to hold his own with these three incredibly charismatic musicians, something that INXS didn’t have. Thus the competition is harder and therefore makes for better TV.

The Bad
1. Brooke Burke. I really hate to say it, cause she’s freakin gorgeous, but she’s got no personality this year. Not that she was amazing last year, but she had some life to her. This year, it’s like she forgot how to read over the summer, then started learning again, just in time for the new season. Complete lack of energy, enthusiasm, and sincerity. Come back old Brooke.

2. “ROCKER”. I hate this word. I hate hate hate hate hate this word. I hate the fact that it supposedly stands for individuality and anti-authority, but has become both a stereotype and a tool of the man. When American Idol took it and used it as their own word…. exclusively using it to refer to two or three people, rather than calling them singers, it got to me. It reminds me of how the wrestler A.J. Styles in TNA has to be referred to at all times as “The Phenominal” A.J. styles. Or how wrestlers in WWE are ALWAYS referred to as “Superstars” and not wrestlers. Not only is it lumping all the singers into one stereotype, but they’re using the same word over and over again. I swear I heard the word “rocker” used 4 times in the first five minutes last week. Seriously, I know you’re trying to prove yourself as the anti-Idol, but get a damn thesaurus, and make the script sound a little more natural. Looking on the website, “Rockers” actually has a capital “R” because, obviously, it’s a proper noun.

3. The SAME songs. They have changed it up a bit, but for every “Zombie” by The Cranberries, there’s a “We are the Champions”. How many times must I hear “Creep”, or the four overplayed combined hits of Jefferson Airplane and Janis Joplin. Does Nirvana really deserve to have had eight performances of their songs? And if i have to hear Interstate Love Song, Bring Me to Life, or Cult of Personality one more time, I’m totally going to illegally download the Supernova CD instead of buying it. And I’ll convince all my friends to download it instead of buying it as well. That’ll show them. It’s just like stealing from them, but I deserve it for having to sit through repeats. Please, more songs like “Starman”, “One Headlight”, and “Helter Skelter”.

4. Tommy Lee acting like a sleazebag. I guess it’s hard for him not to, but come on. Grow up.

5. Dave hasn’t played guitar yet. Granted, there still four weeks to go I think, but it’s about time we see him show off his guitar chops and see if the singers can keep up.

6. Enough with the voting info. I understand the need to make it clear to the audience, but it’s way too much to give me the info 15 times in an hourlong show.

As far as contestants go, I’d say that last years group was stronger, but I can’t really remember anyone other than the top six. We’re still at seven right now, so I’m sure that with two more weeks of showing off and getting better, the top five could probably match last years top five. After all, I wasn’t the biggest fan of last years top two, instead liking 3rd-6th place a lot more. This year’s group is a little more hard-edge with the obligatory tatoos and piercings than last years was and that’s for good reason, because the band and its music is more that style. While Mig had last year’s breakout performance with this song, so far there have been at least two really memorable performances this one and this one, both by Ryan Star. His “smoldering intensity” might just be enough to get him to the finals, and as he’s due to sing an original song this week, we’ll see how far his skill set goes. Even if the top six aren’t better than last year, whoever makes the top three has the potential to surpass the IXS top three. It’s all a matter of whoever has the better single, which, in my opinion is why J.D. Fortune won last year.

***½

What I’ve seen of this year’s Rockstar: Supernova show gets a 3.5 star rating by showing constant improvement, a willingness to be different, and the potential to give the band a really tough choice when it comes to the top three. If only Brooke Burke would be able to stop using the word “Rocker”.

Empty Bookshelf’s First 100 Reviews


Oh, those kids. Always at it. You guys really shouldn’t’ve.

So here we are at the first of what may be a few reviews of our first milestone, 100 reviews. Not only is this the first review of this milestone, but of what could be very many milestones. We here at the Bookshelf like the word “milestone“, and don’t believe in Thesauruses. So here we go, our first hundred in a nutshell.

The first actual review happened way back in October of 2005… remember that time before the Steelers won the superbowl, before “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” movie, before Dick Cheny accidentally shot his friend while hunting, and before Bristol, United Kingdom celebrated the 200th birthday of Isambard Kingdom Brunel (actually April 9) by relighting the Clifton Suspension Bridge?

Dan’s first review was aimed at complaining about post-game hype surrounding an extremely long baseball game. Of course our readers probably care about boring Astros-Braves baseball games as much as they seemed to care about my terrible review of the dictionary. Even though that picture was good, it was nowhere near the five star quality of this image. I too tried my hand at reviewing food, but it was an utter failure. On the plus side, my review of the letter to the editor is one of my favorites, and my first review actually got eight comments, including this link. The few following that grilled chese review focused mostly on music, my opinion of “Good Night, and Good Luck”, a particular episode of Trading Spouses, and Dan’s opinion of My opinion of “Good Night, and Good Luck”. Dan also said that the Colbert report wouldn’t last, which seems to have been proven false.

October seemed to be us finding our footing.
***

November saw Dan’s Cleveland Trifecta, a diatribe against horses, a road that he liked, an episode of “Coach“, and his complaints about how much he aches, now that he’s an old man. I started the month strong with the Beth review, but struggled through the rest of it, with lame reviews like Thursday, a type of tooth”paste” that doesn’t work for me, and an insightful, yet completely unnecessary complaint about my nosebleeds. My FAO Schwarz review kinda made up for them, but the highlight of the month involved Dan and I sparring about how Christmas is coming earlier every year, and something about me being a time-traveling sheep.

November didn’t see much improvement over October, but the Christmas stuff was entertaining.
***½

December got a bit better, even with a few less reviews. I busted out the old NES games, for a few reviews that I swear are not trying to copy off of XE, another personal favorite, Christmas Cards, Adam’s first review, Dan throwing the hate down on Pitchfork media, and a suprising amount of people commenting on Roger Ebert’s take on video games. The biggest advance in December was the pop-ins, that added added some clarity to our parentheses-obsessed-writing.

December was a highly engaging and entertaining month, even with only nine reviews.
****½

2006 rolled around, and January saw Dan get political, review half of a book, not like warm winters a lot. I only contributed three of ten reviews that month, but all three of them were relatively alright, mostly because “Where In Time is Carmen Sandiego“, and “The Simpsons” after season 9 is so easy to complain about.

January’s topics fell off a little.
***½

February, while being the shortest month, was also a monster for us, as far as number goes. A whopping twenty-one reviews. To be fair, 17 of them came in our envelope-pushing live superbowl reviews, the biggest stunt pulled in the history of reviewing anything and everything on a five star scale. The only other reviews of any substance were my Gauntlet Review of the Beatles albums, and Dan’s digging up of our one-issue underground high-school newspaper.

Despite the big stunt, and two good reviews, February was kinda lacking.
**½

March just plain sucked. Four reviews total. One by me. Three mega-reviews by Dan.

½

April was slightly better, with another of my top five of my reviews, Legacy of the Wizard. The other four I would give an average of 3 stars to, but since there were only four during the month, that’s going to cancel out the Legacy of the Wizard bonus and take it down a half star.

**½

For my money, May was our best month yet. Dan’s contribution was the lengthy three-part TV landscape review. I threw out quality stuff with my Songs for Silverman, and Degree Navigator reviews. The shorter American Dreamz and Davinci Code video game reviews were serviceable, but my immense LOST season 2 review tops everything.

*****

June fell off a bit. Four reviews total. Split two and two. Mine were based on a ridiculous news story, and anger at other people for coincidentally coming up with the same ideas as me. Dan tried to put everything into perspective by seeing how well the entire history of human ingenuity and artistry stacked up in the interstellar community, and complained a little about how the national geography of roadways isn’t designed to suit his needs.

**

July was filled with the (I gotta admit my ignorance as to the relevance of this phrase… and wikipedia does nothing to help) Navel Gazing set. I was had for a few minutes by a Jimmy Kimmel hoax, and I thought the critics were a little too harsh on Shayamalan. Despite the mediocre numbers for the month, I’d give it a 3.5

***½

This gives us a per-month average of 3 stars, which isn’t too shabby.

In my first ever review, I reviewed the concept of this website. I claimed that we wouldn’t be able to keep it fresh, that we’d run out of ideas, and that we wouldn’t be able to stay somewhat funny at least. I believe my exact quote was “It has the potential to provide hours of entertainment for readers, and shape their lives for years to come. However, the downside is that it could get old real soon, and provide us with nothing but an excuse not to get real jobs.”

Well, I think we’ve significantly proven wrong every single point that I just brought up. We have 29 categories, 19 subcategories, and even two sub-sub categories. We’re still writing about reasonably different things, and while we may have slacked on the funny in recent months, we still bring the ‘A’ game on occasion. As far as my quote goes, I’d be willing to bet that we’ve provided maybe a few hours of entertainment for a handful of people, which probably did nothing to shape their lives for even the near fututre. On the upside, it hasn’t gotten old, and we have gotten real-ish jobs.

For all of these reasons, I’m willing to up our star rating by half a star, over the average rating of 3. I’ve also realized that my method of calculating the rating might not be the best, so I’m gonna throw in another half star for a final rating of 4 stars out of five.

****

And for those of you playing along at home, yes, this technically is the 100th review and so therefore should be included. This review receives 3 stars for not having much to offer in the way of witty musings, and for having a faulty overall rating method, but for packing so many subjects and links into one review.

***

Ben Folds – “Songs For Silverman”

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I should take some photography lessons from this guy. Every time I try to take a picture of myself in the mirror with a forlorn look on my face, all that shows up is a bright light.

I’ve got a bit of a dilemma. I’m a huuuge Ben Folds/Ben Folds Five fan…. as I’m sure most of you already know. If you asked me to put the albums in order of my favorites, I’d probably be able to do it.The problem is that it wouldn’t be the same orderthat I would rank the overall album quality. “Songs for Silverman“, his first solo full-length album in at least 3 years, has such a high concentration of songs that I would deem “best he’s ever recorded”, that I would put it just slightly ahead of “Whatever and Ever Amen”, on my favorites, however, there are a few songs that are weaker than anything on the earlier Ben Folds Five release, dropping the actual star rating below WAEA.

While WAEA was a collection of good songs, varying fast and slow, deep and shallow, “Songs for Silverman” is more uniform, and at the risk of sounding like a press release, more “mature”. The songs are for the most part slower, have more instrumentation and vocals, more thoughtful lyrics… and just overall, more ambition. To understand a bit better, a brief history, that will probably turn into a bit longer than I intended.

Ben Folds Five was founded as a “fun” piano-electric(usually) bass-drums trio that specialized in “punk rock for wusses” as it was put. The first album was filled with mostly fast, piano-driven songs that were pretty light and enjoyable, with mostly good melodies and a fairly sloppy production quality that had a feeling of spontaneity. The second album, WAEA, had more of a polished feel, with more strings, some slower songs, a “mouth keyboard” of sorts in some of the songs, and more complex three-part backing vocals. The band moved forward even more with the third album, “The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner“, a “concept album” that used mainly slower, even more introspective songs, more experimental instrumentation, and a definite album cohesiveness, including lyrical and musical ideas that were carried over into multiple tracks.

The progress stalled though, when the band broke up, and Folds went solo. His next album, “Rocking the Suburbs” seemed to basically be a sequel to WAEA in style and substance, in fact including a sequel song to one on the first album. He played all the instruments on the album, even though some songs sounded like they had electronic drums in places. The problem though, was that he was touring without a backup band or singers, and so he was writing songs that he could play without backing vocals (actually many of the tracks on the album had overdubbed Folds vocal tracks in the background) or extensive instrumentation.

Back to the present, and he now has a more-than-capable drummer and bassist duo behind him. With this in mind, the album at times has a feeling like it might be where the original band could’ve eventually progressed to, but that’s a moot point. What’s important is that with the exception of a few weak tracks in the middle, this album is filled with jam-packed songs that range from jazz and blues riffs to pop to classical-style, sometimes in the same song. The songs are dense, and for the most part under five minutes, yet some of them I’d say are epic. I would especially say this of “Jesusland”, and the last track “Prison Food”, a song that’s moved up to my number two favorite, with an ending that is built up so much and has so much going on between the furious drumming and bass playing, pulsing piano part, the too-many-to-guess-part harmonies going on, and the mood-setting steel guitar, which brings me to my next point.

When this album came out the online Ben Folds community didn’t accept it right away… to tell you the truth it took a few listens for me to get to like it. The songs and tone of the entire album (we’ll get to individual songs in a minute), were completely different than anything that came before, even including concerts the previous summer and the 3 EPs released the year before. The biggest issue for a lot of people was the guitar. Yes, for the first time in any of the tracks that I can remember, there’s a non-bass guitar. In fact one song has a regular acoustic guitar, but another has a 12-string, and two have lap-steel guitars in them, enhancing the fullness of the sound that much more.

Many of the songs borrow short musical ideas, or tones (in the English class sense of the word, not the musical one), from previous songs… including “Jesusland” borrowing an opening from “The Ascent of Stan”, and the tempo and drum styling from “Mess”; “Landed” borrowing the main piano riff from “Philosophy” and turning it inside out; “Give Judy My Notice”, upgrading a solo-piano version from one of the EPs (adding backing vocals, steel guitar, drums, etc.); “Sentimental Guy”, borrowing the bluesiness (is that a word?) of “All U Can Eat” from another of the EPs; “Time” sounding eerily similar to, but a bit more somber than a song called “Bruised” that he recorded with Ben Lee and Ben Kweller; and “Prison Food”‘s main piano part coming from a superfan community favorite that was released on a collection of rareties, “Emaline”. I know that’s a long list, but I sincerely believe that the songs as a whole are different enough, and in most cases, completely better than the songs containing the borrowed ideas. “Landed”‘s been featured as the theme for the kennel club dog show, and now on the Hilton ads, “Judy” was slow and kinda empty without the added music and faster pace, and “Jesusland”, “Time”, and especially “Prison Food” are among the best on the album, if not the best he’s ever recorded.

For the most part, these songs include what could possibly be considered the most difficult piano parts he’s written (especially the first four), and a large number (every one excluding “You to Thank”; “Gracie“, and “Sentimental Guy”) having what might be his most complicated backing vocals to date.

Overall the album is very intriguing and complex, and grows on you the more you listen to it, as long as you don’t get bogged down by a few slower songs in the middle, and the sappy, yet completely understandable, “Gracie”.

****½

“Songs for Silverman” gets four and a half stars, as it’s more complicated and pleasing to listen to than most every pop recording you can find these days, a few of the songs stand out among my top favorites (which is enough to counteract the sub-par ones), and it has a cohesiveness to it, with only “Gracie” feeling akward and out of place.

In case you’re wondering, I’d rate the rest of them, in order of my favorites: “WAEA”- Five Stars; “Rocking the Suburbs”- Four Stars; “TUBORM”- Three and a half stars; and “Ben Folds Five”- Three stars. Not included in those are “Fear of Pop: Volume One“, “Ben Folds Live“, “Naked Baby Photos“, “William Shatner: Has Been“, or any of the EPs.