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

Kraft Jet-Puffed StackerMallows

In the long-standing tradition of foodstuffs that have been created just so that someone can write “new” on the label, and people can have the illusion of convenience (but in most cases are just pure stupidity), comes Kraft’s new Jet-Puffed Stacker Mallows.

When someone tries to create something new that is designed to have an easier functionality than what is currently available, he must first identify what the problem is with the way that a product or service currently exists or operates. In some cases, where there isn’t much of a problem, but companies are looking to sell something, they can find the tiniest inconveniences and blow them up to ridiculous proportions.

In this particular case, Jet-Puffed has decided that putting marshmallows on a S’more is too difficult a task to accomplish due to the fact that they are ROUND, and stacking a flat object is much much easier. While I can’t argue with this logic, and their attempt to solve this problem is understandable (even though YOUNG KIDS have been able to accomplish S’more making for FOR-EVVV-ERRR), what they’ve come up with is completely underwhelming.

What would you think of if asked to imagine a marshmallow with flat sides? This thing that looks like tofu floating in hot chocolate? This disturbing image? Heck, even the fictional Stay Puft brand actually makes square marshmallows (or at least the omniconsumercorportaion does). Alas, no, THIS is what they came up with.

 

This is what marshmallows look like when stepped on. You want to eat a stepped-on marshmallow?

It’s not that hard to make square marshmallows. And it probably would be easier to make them on an assembly line than round ones anyway: just make a large mallow sheet and have a grid come down to cut it into squares. What Jet-Puffed seems to have effectively done here is take their regular marshmallows and put them through some kind of press, squeezing all of the air out and leaving their product a rubbery tile of something or other. Even worse, the increased surface area to volume ratio means that there is much more of the confectioners sugar-type coating that is aimed to prevent the marshmallow from sticking. This, in turn, dries out your mouth and leaves a gritty residue inside of it. It is not an appealing taste sensation.

But that’s raw. Mallows could also be eaten in a molten state, roasted over a fire or microwaved. How would they fare this way? Well, as far as roasting them goes, it would be nearly impossible to put one of these on a stick and hold it over a fire. The thinness would give them little or no support on the stick and they would fall off, on the dirty ground, leaving your kid in state of sadness worse than this stupid kid or even this. Do you really want to be the guy who makes the mets miss the postseason because of flat marshmallows and dead Santas? I didn’t think so.

But how exactly ARE stackermallows effective? On the back, three “recipes” to make S’mores are listed: Microwave (which this seems to be made exactly for), a toaster oven (which i guess could work)… or wrapping a pre-made s’more in foil and putting it on a grill. How is that last one easier or more fun than this? And even with the microwave or toaster oven option, they’re missing the most important part: regular marshmallows have flat tops and bottoms that allow them to stand on their ends on the s’more as they currently are. They’ve completely made up this stackability problem and are trying to sell you something completely unnecessary, re-inventing the wheel, almost literally.

Basically what I’m saying is that Jet-Puffed ruined my childhood and owes me an apology*.

*not really

Kraft Jet-Puffed Stacker Mallows get 0 stars for basically being flat, rubbery, smushed, airless, grainy tablets trying to pass as marshmallows. Jet-Puffed is trying to sell a fallacy that making S’mores is difficult and their product makes that process simpler, when in reality, it probably is no easier. In addition, they deprive you of one of the biggest joys of eating marshmallows, roasing them over a fire, and then sticking the flaming wad of sugar in your sibling’s face.

“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.

Half Inventing Stuff Part 3, or Other People Stealing Your Ideas Without Ever Having Met You or Knowing that They Stole Something Part 3

barbfume_thisone1
The Bar-B-Fume bottle design and logo from an infomercial I did as a class project in 2002. Graphics designed by Rob Edwards.

So back in 1998, I had an English oral presentation to do in which I’d be selling a made-up product. After racking my brain for hours, my thought process went as follows: “What do teenage girls want? Answer: Guys. Then what do teenage guys want? Answer: Meat. So the way for a girl to get a guy would be by smelling like meat.” The presentation went fantasticly. I had charts and prototypes (sort of… bottles of cologne and body-wash with crudely designed logos). For the women who didn’t want to have to smell the Bar-B-Fume, I invented the “Scent Remover 5000”, which was just a clothespin to put on your nose. I demonstrated how to use the body wash (which for my purposes was just barbecue sauce in a soap dispenser) by smearing it all over my face. And I finished with the tagline, “Ladies, truly the way to a man’s heart is now through his stomach.”

Two years later, the product was revived as an info-mercial for a TV studio production class I was taking, but this time with way better logo design and a killer intro. I can’t attest to the quality of the rest of it. I haven’t watched it in years. You see, I can’t find the tape with that semester’s projects on it. To make matters worse, I can’t even find the tape that has the original speech on it. I have most other semesters’ projects, and I have the other speech we had to give that year in high school, but as it stands, right now the only tangible evidence of Bar-B-Fume existing is the logo I saved.

What makes this important is that Burger King just started marketing a meat-scented fragrance called “Flame”. Here‘s the website. Granted, it smells like the Whopper and not like barbecue sauce, but it’s still enough to have me shouting “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO”. I guess I just need to follow through more.


I’m pretty angry.

Throwing Your Vote Away

I don’t really believe in voting. I know that’s not the most original sentiment and even sounds like the type of overwhelmingly “look how anti-establishment I am – I’m sure that no one else is as serious about it as I am” phrases for which I could call someone out. But, my argument is the same as the usual (it’s super-rare for one vote to matter) and the wonderfully apolitical “status quo” thing. Case in point: the big hubbabaloo about the balance of power shifting to the Democrats in Congress last November. A whole lot of nothing has come of that. Iraq is still going on and the president’s rather liberal immigration make-over was deeee-nied. Status Quo!

flush
It was kind of like this.

Every November, this leaves me at a cross-roads – what’s a better way to waste my vote? To not vote? To go to the booth with zero knowledge of anything going on? Yesterday I chose the latter.

First, let me say that the voting location, The Pennsylvania Institute of Technology, is probably the creepiest set of buildings I’ve ever seen/been inside. Architecture that screams “stay out,” the type of church/chapel that you’d see in a movie where the devil comes back and has his big face-off with a holy warrior, big trees which make creaking sounds at night, and worst, a wholly inadequate access road for fire trucks.

Having manned up enough to get out of my car, I walked around rather aimlessly looking for an entrance to the fortress. No doors were labeled, but I managed to walk into what I learned was the completely wrong wing of a building that I’m sure you’ll see on Ghost Hunters in a few years when the county condemns the place. Voting was simple – I signed my name, waited in line with one person in front of me, listened to one of the other voter’s 3-year-old scream like a maniac, then was next in line.

I got into the booth which had electronic push buttons, then developed a strategy. I saw there were a lot of women in the races, so simply, for every random guy I voted for, I voted for two random women. I also made a point not to vote for the school board person who registered under both Democrat and Republican. How dare he make a mockery of our two party system! How dare he!

So, having done my part for women’s lib., I pressed the green “vote” button to lock it all in, and I had just done my civic duty. Of course, if Delaware County effectively closes down for one week each month due to my voting patterns, maybe I did more harm than good. (I should really be a stand-up comedian.)

****

Throwing Your Vote Away gets four stars. It sticks it to the man (or maybe the woman, in this case) and gives me slight moral superiority over those that protest voting by completely not voting. Unfortunately, it kind of takes a long time getting there, finding the right entrance, then getting back (especially if the voter in question chose to man-it-out and not actually look to see where the place was, and instead, relied on the “fact” that he could, in his mind’s eye, picture the street sign which said “Manchester” though he had no idea where that sign he was remembering actually was.) In terms of doing even more to throw a vote away I have a few options: vote on only one item – so when they talk about about how many people voted, the actual races will have fewer total votes than there were actual voters OR play battleship with the two columns of little lights which glow when you press the candidates’ names. Ah, democracy.

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.

Inadvertently Recreating a Scene from Garden State

Though each time I go to China, I make a pledge to write many reviews (usually a stretch where I’ve written very few) and not follow through, I’ll quietly imply that same pledge now, and begin and start here.

With the fact that flying to China from the U.S. is an awful experience, many of my co-workers get small prescriptions (2 or 3 pills total) for sleeping medicine. I’m not a big fan of taking even over-the-counter taking medicine as it is (my family has a history of awesomeness), but the flight is just plain awful for 15+ hours at a time. With that in mind, I stopped at CVS the night before my trip and purchased a bottle of Advil PM, not exactly prescription sleeping pills per se, but maybe they’d help a little bit.

scrubs
Potential captions for this picture
1) No, not this scene.
2) I’m dark and brooding, too!
3) Because if the girl on the far left weren’t touching his hand, he’d return to the land of lollipops and gumdrops.

Skipping ahead to being on the plane between Chicago and Hong Kong (China), the first (of like 7 drink services – the flight is that long) came through, and international flights serve alcoholic drinks free. For whatever reason (maybe because it seems poetic), sleeping pills are “supposed” to be taken with red wine. Sure, the package explicitly says “do not mix with alcohol,” but I want to be dramatic, darn it. I get a 175mL mini-bottle (about half of a soda can) of red wine from a whichever vintner in California was willing to offer United Airlines wine at 3rd world prices. I take two Advil PM pills, then finish the bottle of wine.

Now, I had to be at the Allentown airport at 5:15am, so as one could imagine, I was pretty tired to begin with but rather uncomfortable because of the whole “being on an airplane” thing. I started noticing the fact that I had drunk wine, then shortly thereafter, went from lazy-feeling because of the wine to full-out, “boy, I’m starting to feel more sleepy than I was before.” This turned into, “wow, I really don’t feel like moving, but I’m not sleepy. Ooh, look how interesting the wall in front of me is.”

So, for about an hour (I think – it was about half of the movie “Marie Antoinette”) I sat there, dazed staring at the wall in front of me on the airplane as other passengers did their business, getting things from their stowed luggage, heading to the facilities, taking little strolls down the aisle. It’s like the chemicals had slowed me down to the point of not being able to process the outside world my choices had made it so life was passing me by. Oh no, I was inadvertently recreating a scene from Garden State!

Extra bonus points for providing which Scrubs episode ending on a similar note to my ending.

**½

Inadvertently Recreating a Scene from Garden State receives two-and-a-half stars for, well, I’m not sure. I won’t be repeating the experience on the way back (maybe with significantly more Advil PM’s, though I doubt it), so I guess that counts for everything.

A refresher for those who haven’t seen the movie or for whom it’s been awhile…

The Promotion of ‘Borat:Cultural Learnings of Ame’rica for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan’


Maybe this ridiculous outfit is what I need to get the womens. High Five!

This guy is everywhere! I mean it. I mean it. Not just the ubiquitous ads for the movie, either. He may very well be the first person I’ve seen promoting one thing on Letterman, Leno, Conan, and The Daily Show, and a half-hour appearance in Opie and Anthony, in less than two weeks. And not only has the actor, Sacha Baron Cohen, been on all of them, he’s been on all of the as Borat, and done so in multiple segments on at least two of them. On Leno, he made a bed with Martha Stewart, and on Conan, he chased Conan around the stage with a pair of scissors, followed by one of the most bizarre musical performances I’ve seen on his show. In all four appearances the interview topics were different and fresh. Here’s a compendium of all of the media appearances. The guy even had a “float” in the NY Halloween parade, which is basically just a costume showcase and giant party. The “float” consisted of about 20 Borat impersonators. Completely ludicrous. I’m sure he’s got a myspace thing going as well. I have never seen an ad campaign for a film that was so in your face. The thing is, the movie was so inexpensive that it made up its cost in the first week. They can throw all kinds of money into the advertising, and it’ll still come out on top. And it’s an hilarious movie to boot. Congrats on getting everyone in the country’s attention.

*****

There isn’t a person in the country who doesn’t know about this movie. I’m nearly certain. Five stars.

Thinking of What’s Probably the Best Possible Thing to Put in a Going Away Card Ever

I don’t mean to pat myself on the back….well, okay….yes I do. Someone I know who is from Switzerland (the French-speaking part, for whatever that’s worth) and spent the last few years living in the US is moving back to Switzerland very shortly. A blank-on-the-inside going away card was passed around, and it was obvious that most people thought about what to write for about 30 seconds then decided on, “Good Luck! We’ll miss you!” No problem, it’s not like they didn’t mean it. But not this guy. I gave it 15 seconds of thought, and inscribed this gem of pure wit: “…and I thought it was a New Jersey accent!” This ranks right up there with Nate’s Christmas card message about people leaving their dogs outside to freeze during Christmas. Incredibly proud of myself, I thought to sign my name to my masterpiece and pass on the increasingly valuable card, except I realized that maybe I didn’t want the recipient thinking I was all funny and not enough serious, so I stamped a “Good Luck! We’ll miss you!” at the end.

Best. Going-Away-Message. Ever.

card
I see your “BLANK” and raise it…hmm….awesome hundred dollars.

*****

(See, she’s from Switzerland and has a very obvious French accent …. eh, never mind.)